Monday, May 27, 2024

A three-hour-plus session of public comment over a proposed school Innovation Agenda gets under way Monday in City Hall. (Photo: Marc Levy)

A vote on whether to adopt an Innovation Agenda to create four public “upper schools” for the district is set for tonight at a 6 p.m. meeting in City Hall.

Near the end of more than three hours of public comment on the agenda Monday, talk began to turn to the effect the debate itself has had on the community — damaging, in the eyes of a few — but city councillor Craig Kelley offered a bit of healing.

There have been nearly two dozen official meetings and plenty of conversation and comment outside of those, via e-mail, telephone calls and smaller gatherings.

But little consensus.

The agenda pits parents who want to keep the district’s nurturing “elementary schools” against those who feel the JK-8 model is too limiting, but those lines blurred nearly as soon as it was unveiled Feb. 1 by Superintendent Jeffrey Young. More recently there has been a “go hybrid” movement to blend aspects of each, as well as parents and educators offering their own amendments or backing the agenda (or parts of it) before or since a March 7 revision.

On Sunday, e-mails surfaced that showed agenda opponents expecting to lose tonight’s vote but talking about running School Committee candidates in November who could overturn the decision upon taking office in January.

Councillor apologizes

Among those discussing the elections option was Kelley, whose contribution was interpreted by some as advocating the approach. He said Sunday that he was not arguing in favor of the effort, and followed that with an apology Monday during public comment.

“I know that I have done some things that have offended some of you, and would like to apologize for that. Sometimes I get a little ahead of myself,” Kelley said.

“As you know, I don’t support the plan, but whatever it is you decide, there’s a lot of passion — including right here — and we’ll all work together to move forward to make the schools better for everyone,” Kelley told committee members. “That’s going to be a challenge no matter what happens.”

No clear majority among speakers

There were at least 70 speakers over the course of the evening, each with an official three minutes, but more time was given to many by Mayor David Maher and the committee members, while other speakers formally ceded all or some of their time to others who shared their views. Several speakers read statements, and some of those statements were signed by dozens of people.

Still, there seemed no majority among Sullivan Chambers’ capacity crowd, which spilled into the hallway, balcony and into seats behind and around city officials.

In a telephone conversation the previous day, Patty Nolan guessed regardless that the panel’s vote would go strongly for the agenda. She based the assumption, in part, on her peers’ reluctance to delay the final decision despite the revisions announced by the superintendent only a week earlier.

Nolan and Alice Turkel, who has said she remains haunted by effects of a 2003 school consolidation, were the only members supporting a delay to consider the ramifications of Young’s changes to the plan.

That earlier consolidation was also raised by a scornful Jim Iffland during public comment, who referred to “bad blood that ran deep for years” from it before pointing out, “Here we are again, doing it all over again. Why? Because that last hugely disruptive plan didn’t work.”

‘Not a good process’

His dismay over the process of the past month and a half became part of a theme among the last dozen speakers, including John Capello, who damned the agenda debate as “a big mess.”

“This is not a good process,” Capello said. “This has made our community more divided, and I feel really bad about that … the fact that we’re here right now arguing with each other probably means we took the wrong path.”

Kathy Greeley followed him, agreeing that “the division in the community hurts — it really hurts. I don’t want to see our community turn against each other.”

Only a few minutes later, Mary-Ann Matyas noted that she had planned to speak as leader of a school group, but couldn’t because “We’re conflicted as a committee and Graham & Parks is divided as a community.”

While she spoke in favor of the Innovation Agenda’s goals, she agreed that “the process did not have to be so divisive and so acrimonious. It did not have to be this way.”

City Hall is at 795 Massachusetts Ave., Central Square, Cambridge.