Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young makes a presentation to the School Committee in March 2010. The committee voted Tuesday to renew his contract. (Photo: Marc Levy)

There was so much talk Tuesday of anxiety in the community that schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young might have started to feel a little anxious himself about his evaluation and contract renewal. But when it came to voting, School Committee members voted enthusiastically and unanimously to keep Young in place.

The feeling among the seven members was so clear that they didn’t even bother going into the closed-door session planned for discussion before the vote — although being three and a half hours into what wound up being roughly a five-hour meeting might have helped. The meeting, the last of the school year, ended with the second planned closed-door session.

“I thank you for the vote of confidence you have just taken,” Young told members after the vote. “I can say that almost all of the time I love this job. There are days here and there where I don’t so much, but most of the time it’s fantastic. It’s a wonderful community, and I’m proud to serve. This is a pretty complex job, but I never have mornings driving to work where I dread being here.”

His contract extends through July 6, 2012, but says he must be told a year earlier whether the committee wants to negotiate with him for an extension. The committee also voted unanimously Tuesday to hire outside counsel to begin those negotiations.

Young, 58, was hired in April 2009 in votes that went from 5-2 to 6-0, with then mayor Denise Simmons abstaining — a reflection of a contentious search process that had some critical of bringing in Young from Newton instead of promoting Carolyn Turk, who was interim superintendent and is now deputy superintendent. Young’s annual salary has been given as $109,154.

Improvement

He followed Thomas Fowler-Finn, who was remembered Tuesday as being a top-down manager with a harsh touch who, despite accomplishments such as raising graduation rates and creating a montessori school, won only a one-year extension to his contract before he decided to leave.

The reviews of committee members suggested Young would get a longer renewal.

“When we reviewed you a little over a year ago, one thing I do remember is that you’d had a number of false starts. Moving special ed classrooms, changing the Ola program, you had a go at a middle school plan. There was a discussion you weren’t doing enough background work, hearing from the community and backing down as not being a good thing. We asked for you do to do your homework and brings things forward when you were ready,” said committee member Alice Turkel to Young. “You were able to hear what I heard as a big theme of that evaluation and change your strategy, take more time … and whatever you did was enough to get six of seven votes on the Innovation Agenda.”

The agenda, which will remove middle-aged students from district elementary schools and put them in four new schools of their own, got every member’s vote but Turkel’s and divided the community over the course of months of lengthy meetings, surveys and public comment periods. It continues to be the the key issue causing anxiety in the community over Young’s tenure (and the source of some dozen uses of the word over the course of the night).

Differences in perception

One speaker during public comment, David Quigley, addressed the “major shortcoming of leadership by both the superintendent and School Committee, namely your collective inability to convince many of the city’s teachers that the Innovation Agenda makes educational sense … some of the best teachers in Cambridge remain skeptical of, if not outright opposed to, the Innovation Agenda.”

“Some of our most talented educators feel devalued and demoralized,” Quigley said, “feeling voiceless and unsure whether they should continue working in this system.”

Yet the president of the Cambridge Teachers Association, Chris Colbath-Hess, stood up only minutes later to applaud Young as an administrator who “has given us access. He has actively solicited educator input in the process of changes he has tried to make in this district. He has listened and incorporated many of our suggestions … that is access that I don’t think we’ve always had and I think it’s something we as educators highly value.”

“While we don’t always agree, the door does not get shut in our faces,” Colbath-Hess said. “Both sides of any question are considered thoughtfully, and not just ‘Yeah yeah yeah, I heard you.’”

That difference in perception was heard again in assessing how well Young communicated with members of the community and the committee itself, with members noting that some of the flood of e-mails sent during the discussion over the agenda was never answered, which made the senders feel they weren’t being heard. (Young said his office did acknowledge such e-mails.) Poor communication can cause bigger problems, members said, with Richard Harding getting knowing laughs when he reminded Young, “The way Cambridge works is simple: If the information isn’t there, someone will create it.”

Already a poorly phrased document about humanities programs — including English language arts, a skill set that Young noted has “flatlined” in standardized testing — has panicked parents accosting committee members in grocery stores with worries that beloved areas of study will be ended. Young said the programs merely need review, improvement and some degree of standardization.

Widespread support

Still, committee members said that members of the public who have shared their opinions are overwhelmingly supportive of Young.

“You have a lot of support in this community. We can’t take that lightly,” Nancy Tauber told him.

While winning praise for such things as his handling the budget, general flexibility and his relationship with team members such as Turk, the superintendent was reminded that he still had to craft a long-term teachers contract — which Fred Fantini called “an incredibly powerful policy document” — as well as close the student achievement gap, find metrics for success as meaningful as the state’s standardized test, the MCAS, and make the Innovation Agenda a reality.

“What I’m hearing in the community is that the Innovation Agenda is going to forever cement your legacy in Cambridge,” Harding said. “I have full confidence that you have the ability to move us forward in the right way.”