Monday, May 27, 2024

School Committee member Fred Fantini. Sensing tension Tuesday, he wound up “calendaring” several items to a later meeting. (Photo: Liv Rachelle Gold)

An onslaught of “calendar” power wiped out much of the week’s School Committee agenda, meaning members chose to bump items to future meetings instead of vote or discuss them further Tuesday — including a motion to allow television cameras and public comment at next week’s math roundtable.

The “members” exercising the power, in this case, mostly means Fred Fantini.

It started with approval of contract changes for expanded learning time programs at the King School and Fletcher Maynard Academy, a simple-seeming affair given approval by the Cambridge Teachers Association, but a plea for committee rejection and the listing of six obscure points of contention by an academy teacher — committee members seemed confused by the subtleties or esoteric nature of the complaints — was enough for Fantini to ask if the vote could be comfortably delayed.

Superintendent Jeffrey Young conferred with staff but ultimately urged the committee to vote. Fantini calendared anyway.

“My gut says to me there’s no sense of urgency. Two weeks shows respect for the teachers at Fletcher Maynard,” Fantini said.

Then came three bundled math-related items.

April’s committee roundtable on math in Cambridge public schools was a surprise smash hit, playing to a packed house and drawing compliments and requests for more.

Now, as the district focuses on a math curriculum review and a second roundtable arrives Tuesday at 6 p.m. in City Hall, committee members Patty Nolan and Marc McGovern thought it would be a good idea to show the meeting on Cambridge Community Television and for public comment to be allowed, since in April the talking was done by experts and district officials.

But after more than a half-hour of talk on all three math motions, Fantini calendared again, this time bumping every item remaining on the agenda save for an evaluation of the superintendent.

Math motions

The other math-related motions included Alice Turkel asking for committee access to annual reports on eighth-graders’ skills; and Nolan and Richard Harding proposing

that the question of how to meet the needs of all students, including those ready for algebra, without leveled classes, be answered in detail by the administration at the special meeting on Oct. 12 for math. Further, that the 2010 MCAS data including student growth percentiles in math across the district be addressed, including a plan of action to address the areas of weakness.

But discussion of whether such information was actually best requested before the roundtable or after had Turkel suggesting her own motion be tabled, and Harding complied — the second calendaring of the night.

McGovern prompted further debate, though, by noting that filing such motions, once handled mainly through informal requests, “comes across as more adversarial. We’re starting to slip into filing a lot of motions to make the administration do something, and that has a very different feel from a courtesy phone call or e-mail.”

And he quickly took back his own motion for televising and inviting public comment to the roundtable, prompting even more debate.

“In hindsight, I’m starting to feel this is not the best course of action,” he explained. “I’m less concerned with the televised part as I am about public comment, because we only have a certain amount of time … if there’s too much public comment, it’s going to eat away at the presentation itself.”

Turkel, Harding, Fantini and the superintendent agreed, all pointing to the time provided elsewhere in the process for members of the public to talk or ask about the math curriculum, and McGovern took pains to point out his general support for public input. There was also general agreement that, as Harding said, roundtables have a “different type of interaction [that] allows us to address questions informally, and I would hate to see that change because the cameras were on.”

Nolan, though, was not convinced.

“It is in our rules that it can be televised if we choose. With public comment, would that we had that problem! Our message to people is ‘We want you to be involved, we want you to come,’” Nolan said. “There’s not that many people who come. I know there’s concern it’ll be public comment, public comment, but if there’s a lot of people who feel we’re not delivering what they feel their kids should get, we should hear from them. Even if 50 came we’d be lucky, and 10 would sign up to speak. If we limit it to two minutes each, that’s 20 minutes. I think that’s time well spent.”

There was another 10 minutes of discussion before Fantini spoke, but when he spoke he announced his intentions immediately: He was calendaring. Almost everything.

“My sense is there’s a great deal of tension around this issue. That’s a lousy place for us to be as a system trying to work together,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s manufactured tension, but I think we all feel it. I don’t know if it’s healthy for our school system. This doesn’t feel good to me, and we need to get to a better place. This thing needs to be brought under control.”

Along with the math items went a motion by McGovern and Harding that district lawyers look into raising the dropout age to 18 from 16; and a motion by Nolan for better, faster updates to the district website.

Young’s evaluation was not calendared and took up the remainder of the meeting — another hour.

At the end of the evaluations, Fantini said he was calendaring the issue.

Then, quickly, he made it clear he was joking.