Thursday, July 18, 2024

Cambridge’s City Council and School Committee occasionally meet and hold roundtables. This joint meeting took place in November. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The delicate work of remaking the school district is delayed again, but while the pauses in February and March were mainly to make sure parents were comfortable with the plans, on Monday it was city councillors who called a halt to the action, saying they didn’t have enough information.

At stake in the City Council meeting was $3 million requested by City Manager Robert W. Healy to begin design work on a city school, starting a cycle of planning and construction that would see three rebuilt, improved campuses opened every two years starting 2014.

The matter was tabled by councillor Denise Simmons, using her “charter right” veto.

While some questions by the three concerned councillors were easily answered — Craig Kelley wondered how $3 million could pay for reconstruction, and was told the money was for design; Ken Reeves asked the difference between rebuilding and renovating — the connection with the district’s Innovation Agenda was deemed too complicated for an immediate vote. The agenda says there will be four schools for middle-schoolers, although the schools will be in buildings shared with some of the district’s existing “elementary” schools, which now house students until they graduate to high school.

“It doesn’t mention the Innovation Agenda. It’s very vague,” Simmons complained of the funds request. “But is not a stand-alone thing, as I understand it. It’s in connection with what we’re going to do around the Innovation Agenda.”

Simmons wanted to wait for a council meeting with the committee next Monday to learn more about how the agenda — the topic of some two dozen meetings, hearings and roundtables before the final vote March 15 — fit in with school construction plans.

Their own agenda

Healy struggled to make clear to Simmons, who has been on the council since 2001 and served as mayor, as well as to Reeves (another former mayor, who has been on the council since 1989) and Kelley (a councillor since 2005) that they were not voting on the $3 million Monday, just moving the matter to a second reading when they could vote. If approved, the money becomes part of the city budget, likely to be voted May 23.

“This is how we have submitted all the capital projects that require bond authorizations and appropriations over the past several years,” Healy told them.

He also found himself in the position of explaining to the councillors what they had told him in the past.

“I know there’s been discussion in the council and the School Committee for several years now that as we completed the War Memorial and Cambridge Rindge & Latin School the next logical need was a look at and work in the elementary schools, and this is the commencement of that,” Healy said. “Independent of academic or educational restructuring, these facilities need work.”

Marjorie Decker said she was confused by her fellow councillors’ hesitation and wondered if it wasn’t a way to “stall” the project in opposition of the Innovation Agenda itself, which was voted in 6-1 by the School Committee — an independent body. Kelley agreed he didn’t like the agenda; he was a frequent presence at committee meetings and was involved in rallying opposition to it, even going so far as getting embroiled in a possible move to oust supportive committee members in the November elections. He later apologized to the committee.

But on Monday he urged district officials, through the manager, “don’t put us in the awkward place of voting on stuff like this without really understanding anything about it.”

Projecting the projects

As mayor, David Maher runs the council and School Committee, and was able to give a look ahead at the recommendation he expected the committee to hear Tuesday at its regular meeting: that the school on Putnam Avenue, now the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Amigos schools, would be the first to be renovated; the King Open School, on Cambridge Street, would be second; the John M. Tobin School, on Vassal Lane, would be third; and that there would be minor alterations to the Andrew Peabody School on Rindge Avenue to accommodate its reconfiguration to host one of the “upper” schools. The Graham & Parks School, on Linnaean Street, is also in need of an update and would likely be fourth in line for a major overhaul.

Without an architect’s assessment, though, “we’re completely flying by the seat of our pants,” Maher said, “as to whether we can accomplish what we want in these buildings in their current structure or if it makes more sense to begin again.”

It’s been a paradox about the agenda since Superintendent Jeffrey Young introduced it: He wanted the community to agree on the concept and flesh out the details together, while many in the community insisted on knowing the details of the plan before they agreed to it. Now councillors are being asked to fund what some say they don’t understand, when their funds are needed to gather details for the plan.