Saturday, July 20, 2024

Cambridge schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young in his first year in office, which was reviewed Tuesday by School Committee members. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Superintendent Jeffrey Young got a robust endorsement Tuesday from the School Committee in a somewhat impromptu evaluation at the end of a lengthy meeting.

There was one clear criticism — that he communicated poorly with committee members, even during times of crisis — and a couple of related, but paradoxical, areas of concern: that he was flexible to a fault, willing to bend or step back on priorities in a way that suggested he made proposals without being prepared for a strong reaction from the community; and that he may have squandered a first-year “honeymoon period” in which he could have passed major initiatives in advancing the district “from good to great.”

A real honeymoon period, of course, would have meant less public outcry causing him to react by reversing or shelving proposals in favor of further study and consensus-building, as happened with such initiatives as the creation of a middle school and program cuts. The critique also was tempered by members’ admission that his first year had to be spent learning Cambridge, and by admiration for the zeal with which he’d undertaken that task.

A partial list provided by Young showed 233 public events he’d attended in the past year, including at least 85 visits to schools, said an awed committee vice chairman Marc McGovern. “There was concern by some that bringing in someone who wasn’t from Cambridge or who didn’t live in Cambridge wouldn’t really try to immerse themselves in our community,” McGovern said. “You have done that. You have done that exceedingly well — and that’s not something you have to do, that’s not a School Committee meeting; that’s flipping hot dogs at family day at Danehy Park.”

Steps taken, bridges built

Over the course of the year Young put in place a district restructuring that had been discussed for some years, crafted a tough budget that still added full-time educational “coaches” to elementary schools and an anti-bullying program, instituted short-term educational changes in light of the shelved middle school concept and put a focus on correcting the near-constant movement of special-needs children in a district where kids who could handle movement far better stay in a single school for up to eight years.

Even as his focus on special-education students and mastery of budget challenges drew commendation from committee members, there was repeated soundings of concern that he erred on the wrong side of, in the words of member Nancy Tauber, “the fine line between being flexible and being too flexible” — up to the point that member Richard Harding told him, “If I were to look back on this year, I couldn’t really put my finger on one thing you’ve done.”

But Harding also acknowledged the obvious efforts Young had made to build bridges with the community. “You’ve positioned yourself very, very well for this second year. You’ve made all the right moves in terms of building relationships,” Harding said. “I am hearing in a lot of places, even from the doubters and skeptics, you are definitely in their eyes coming around in terms of comfort [level].”

Harding acknowledged his gravitas; member Fred Fantini spoke of his integrity; and a few members spoke of Young’s impressive ability to communicate clearly and even extemporaneously.

But nearly every committee member raised the issue of communication in a negative way as well, saying they’d been left surprised and uninformed when parents approached them even on hot-button issues such as a Sept. 16 incident at the Cambridgeport School playground, when children were hurt by pepper spray left by adults who’d used the playground overnight.

“I haven’t felt that we’ve really been kept informed,” member Alice Turkel said. “When someone calls or e-mails you, you like to know how to respond. But it’s also helpful to the system, because when we can respond appropriately, we can help allay concerns. A response of ‘I don’t know, I hadn’t heard about that,’ isn’t always the best response.”

When the review was over, Young thanked the members for their feedback and committed to “cleaning up” areas of weakness as he worked with them on strengthening the district.

“Overall, you had a very solid and good first year,” McGovern said.

“Now you just need to take it to the next level,” Tauber said.

“I want to get there faster,” member Patty Nolan said. “I want to get to great.”