Thursday, May 23, 2024

A proposed district Innovation Agenda would give the district “upper schools” on, from top, Cambridge Street in the King Open School, Vassal Lane in the Tobin School, Rindge Avenue in the Peabody School and Putnam Avenue in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School.

The district’s Innovation Agenda to group sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders goes into a Monday hearing and Tuesday vote facing renewed plans for short- and long-term opposition, according to conversations with and e-mails received Sunday from those on both sides of the issue.

Running candidates in November to overturn the agenda is raised in some of the e-mails, with School Committee members Nancy Tauber and Marc McGovern, the committee’s vice chairman, mentioned specifically as being “vulnerable” in an election.

Some of the e-mails are from Craig Kelley, a district parent who is also on the City Council.

“There is also the possibility, and I wouldn’t argue that it’s a very strong one, that a post-vote push during November’s campaign could see enough new School Committee members to pull the plug on this plan (should it pass) as its first action in January,” Kelley wrote.

But his e-mail also acknowledged opponents could rally behind the agenda instead of keeping up stress on the district and its resources.

“Lots of moving parts there,” said the e-mail attributed to Kelley, “including the possibility that post-vote we all agree to try and help it move forward successfully.”

In a telephone conversation Sunday evening, Kelley clarified that he was “not arguing that there should be a voter revolt in November, nor that would I organize it. In the e-mail, I’m pointing out two ends of the spectrum.”

There has already been nearly two dozen meetings, hearings and roundtables on the issue, with the most recent being a Saturday gathering consisting of several hours of public comment. The School Committee’s vote on the agenda has been pushed back already, and members Alice Turkel and Patty Nolan had been trying for another delay to allow time for the public to absorb changes proposed Tuesday by Superintendent Jeffrey Young.

There was no great will elsewhere on the committee to delay the vote, though, even as parent Donna Palermino described a new flurry of opposition based on fears the plan was going to pass with the result being, with the Graham & Parks School given as en example, “a very long-standing, organic community being torn apart.”

Could be a long meeting

Tuesday’s vote on the agenda could come only after an extensive series of amendments are debated and voted on, and even those amendments will follow another round of public comment. The meeting, to be held in City Hall at 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, is set to start at 6 p.m., with its end time in considerable doubt. (Monday’s hearing takes the place of the regular City Council meeting.) Nolan said the committee could just, and may have to, extend the meeting indefinitely to ensure a final vote takes place.

Instead of having a dozen “elementary schools” housing students from childhood until they graduate to the Cambridge Rindge & Latin high school, the agenda would give the district “upper schools” on Cambridge Street in the King Open School, fed also by the Cambridgeport and Fletcher Maynard schools; Vassal Lane in the Tobin School, fed also by the Graham and Parks and Haggerty schools; Rindge Avenue in the Peabody School, fed also by the Baldwin school; and Putnam Avenue in the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School, fed also by the Kennedy-Longfellow and Morse schools.

Young proposes the upper schools — “not middle schools,” he takes pains to point out, because they would not be physically isolated — based on research suggesting the current arrangement keeps students and teachers in groups too small and detached to be challenged in academics or extracurriculars. Current and recent students have been some of the strongest critics of the JK-8 system, whether cited by Young or speaking for themselves during public comment.

But the community is still torn, and there are still many unanswered questions, Nolan said, starting with how the plan closes the district’s achievement gap. A request for outside experts and examples to follow has gone unfulfilled, she said.

“People say we’ve talked a lot about this for years and it’s time to act, but we didn’t really talk about this plan until Feb. 1, and the actual plan we’re voting on was presented a week ago,” she said. “The financial aspects are still not known, and that’s huge. If we need to increase our budget by $1 million, we’re going to have to make cuts.”

She isn’t the only person bothered by the agenda’s lack of detail on implementation, but committee members including Tauber and McGovern have noted that the superintendent would also be pilloried for dictating how the plan would be implemented, and committee members have lauded him for the flexibility he has shown in revising plans based on community input.

That may have to go on. In addition to stickers announcing “Expect more/Unify Cambridge/Support the plan/I’m a voter and I support the Innovation Agenda” and opposing letters and petitions appearing in the Cambridge Chronicle, Saturday’s meeting saw the introduction of signs saying “Go hybrid,” Palermino said. “For schools that want middle schools, they should get them, and those who want to stay JK-8 should be able.”

Constituents from the Fletcher-Maynard Academy have been nearly silent in the debate — Nolan said there are still parents in the district who don’t even know the agenda is on the table — until a lone man spoke up Saturday. He opposed the agenda in its current form.

City Council involvement

In addition to e-mail and phone campaigns mentioned in e-mails and voices of opposition described as growing at the Baldwin, Cambridgeport, Graham & Parks and King Open schools, another e-mail forwarded by Kelley warns Young that, while the city manager my have assured him there would be money for district plans, “in the end, it is the City Council that has to approve bond issues and similar expenditure-related items.  I can’t speak for my peers, but given my opposition to the underlying Agenda, I am not sure how comfortable I would be in approving bond issues and appropriation requests related to it.”

The inevitable merging of parent and council issues could renew criticisms from fellow councillors Tim Toomey and Marjorie Decker of Kelley’s involvement in committee matters. It first flared up Dec. 6, when Kelley filed a policy order seeking city legal advice into the limits of council involvement in school matters — and meant Toomey’s role in trying to spare the jobs of clerical workers affected in a district restructuring. But Toomey responded with allegations that Kelley’s closed-door meetings with Young were illegal.

“If you sit with the school superintendent, don’t you think he’s going to feel somewhat intimidated and threatened if he didn’t meet with the councillor?” Toomey asked at one point.

On Sunday, Kelley said he didn’t see why his e-mails with other parents could or would reignite the debate over councillor involvement in committee decisions, describing his message as one of citizen involvement no different than he would advocate in any situation. Nolan independently agreed, but any misinterpretation by others, Kelley said, would lead him to think “I should be more careful in how I express myself,” he said.

Indeed, Palermino declined to talk about Kelley’s e-mails beyond saying “he’s been extremely cautious about not injecting himself as a city councillor, and has held himself back a lot.”

McGovern didn’t see it that way.

‘Very hurtful’

Also reached by phone Sunday, he agreed it was realistic there could be a turnover of two or three committee members in November and that the agenda could be reversed — it was a problem with the committee that turnover can block momentum for long-term change, he said — but called Kelley’s e-mails inappropriate in how they discuss the possibility.

“For an elected official to try to incite this, not just to encourage but to take an active role in strategizing to overturn a decision that hasn’t even happened yet, is not appropriate,” McGovern said. “It’s tea partyesque, like ‘We don’t like Obama’s health care plan, so let’s throw it out.’ If he’s acting like a concerned parent, which he is, it’s fine, but as an elected official you’re charged with representing the entire community … you’ve got to set a good example and try to keep the conversation respectful.”

There are many things the council does that affects the district’s students, such as zoning, affordable housing and open space decisions, he said, but committee members don’t interject themselves in council affairs.

“What Kelley is doing is absolutely unprecedented and hypocritical,” McGovern said.

Tauber, who taught middle school for a dozen years and took part in the recent blue-ribbon commission looking at middle school education in the district, said she was busy Sunday reading through a flood of e-mail that has been nearly unceasing for the past “tough, intense six weeks.”

Among those e-mails were some showing discussion by Kelley and others seemingly targeting her and McGovern for replacement.

“It was hard to read that, and by people who know me, who’ve had conversations with me, who I’ve tried to help,” Tauber said. “It was very hurtful. I ran for School Committee to try to do what’s best for the school district, and I have to just not listen to the noise and distraction and do the best I can.”

She grew optimistic looking at Kelley’s comments about opponents joining forces behind the agenda, if it passes.

“Think about all the energy people have put into this,” she said, referring to opposition to the agenda. “We could have a great school system if people put that same energy into moving it forward.”