Thursday, June 13, 2024

School Committee candidates, with current members grouped toward the left, laugh during a lighter moment of Wednesday’s candidate forum. (Photo: Monica Velgos)

The Wednesday forum for School Committee candidates was as much a workout as a warmup for future forums — efficient, with limited introductions and no breaks and featuring questions sent in advance to the sponsor, the East Cambridge Planning Team, as well as those submitted on the spot to moderator Nancy Stiening, the planning team’s secretary.

Around 50 people came to watch the 10 of 11 candidates, including a group of students wearing stickers supporting challenger (and associate head of school for the one-year Beacon Academy) Mervan Osborne. The event was held at East End House on Spring Street.

The physical lineup of candidates stood out. Though candidates drew seats on the panel by chance, the result grouped current committee members and four challengers, with challenger Bill Forster missing. The positioning made committee members’ easy gesturing and eye contact with other incumbents all the more noticeable as they described how they are working together toward goals (Alice Turkel and Marc McGovern on the school district accepting all 4-year-olds, for example, or Nancy Tauber, Fred Fantini and McGovern working on school climate). It also tempted some incumbents with to chat with their neighbors during the challengers’ final pitches.

The were questions about quantity of recess time, how to prevent or deal with disruptive classroom behavior, communications about the Innovation Agenda, sharing best practices among schools and what CPSD lacks and needs — an opportunity for some candidates to recite long wish lists and other candidates to stress the need to focus on top priorities.

The most varying responses arose from questions about supporting advanced, gifted and accelerated students and the existence of charter schools, but there were confusing questions too, such as “How do you differentiate ‘ability grouping,’ ‘tracking’ and ‘accelerated learning.’” Most candidates simply replied what those terms meant to them.

As for the $25,000 question (the amount the district spends per pupil, actually $25,737), committee member Alice Turkel cited a discovery she made with colleague Fred Fantini when they asked Superintendent Jeffrey Young to do a budget comparison with his previous district, Newton: “We spend a lot more money on special education than Newton does. We are sending lots of kids out of district to ride long bus rides to schools that we cannot adequately supervise. In Newton they send fewer children out, and the children they send out are at higher cost, meaning they’re sending out children with more extreme special needs.”

Challenger Charles Stead pointed out that talking about “$25,000 per pupil” obfuscates the fact that the resources in our district aren’t spent equitably.

“There are different programs, there are different schools that get more than others,” Stead said. “There are a lot of inequities that occur at Cambridge public schools.”

Immediately afterward, candidate Joyce Gerber gave a contrary perspective: “Our schools are filled with resources. And that $25,000 is evident in every school.”

For details of upcoming School Committee forums, including the one from 7 to 9 p.m. Thursday at the Cambridge Family YMCA in Central Square, click here.