James Maloney, the Cambridge school district’s chief operating officer, says he’s warned School Committee members of the need for a comprehensive look at school choice policies. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Without notice to parents, the controlled choice formula deciding where students go to school  changed over the summer, potentially losing students a slot at a campus they might have expected to attend when the academic year ended just a couple of months earlier.

The reason: The devilishly complicated and politically divisive controlled choice policy, which tries to achieve balance at each school in sex, neighborhood, bilingualism, special education status and socioeconomic status, no longer applies just to the district’s elementary schools. It also affects  the four schools opening in 11 months for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, with each having three K-5 schools serving as feeders.

The district, in other words, balances the five factors for the elementary school, but then must look ahead years to see what balance will be like on shared campuses that are only now being put together.

“This means that after receiving a transfer or assignment request for 2011 we will review further to make sure that the addition of a student in one school does not exacerbate existing balance problems at the upper school or create new ones,” James Maloney, the district’s chief operating officer, wrote Aug. 12 to Superintendent Jeffrey Young, marking the implementation of the policy for grades five through seven. “For example, if there is a request for a free student(s) to transfer into the Morse School fifth grade for September 2011 and there is a seat for that student at the Morse, under the controlled choice policy we will not admit that student because it will exacerbate the imbalance of [free- and reduced-cost lunch] students at the Putnam Avenue upper school in September 2012.”

“Finally, no student will be admitted to grades five through seven at any school if the combined 2011 enrollment for the grade in the new upper school exceeds 88 students,” Maloney wrote. “For example, even though there is currently room in grade five at the Tobin, no further students will be admitted to that grade because the new Vassal Lane upper school already exceeds 88 at that grade.”

Maloney created the second tier of balancing after a summer roundtable meeting of the School Committee, but votes aren’t taken at roundtables. So members didn’t vote on it, and parents didn’t weigh in on it.

“It was accepted as a temporary measure,” said Patty Nolan, a committee member who co-chaired with Richard Harding a controlled choice task force created a year ago, but now defunct. “I think it should be revisited a soon as possible.”

Among the problems brought on by the change, Nolan said Thursday, is that student transfers were on hold until Maloney’s new approach to balance was in place — a “total breach of our policy.” It pushed the logistics of transfers between schools to the end of August, the time regular student registration is already taking place, likely stressing Family Resource Center workers whose numbers shrank in a district restructuring two budgets ago.

While the implementation may have breached policy, an effort was made to follow the law. Maloney told parent Gojeb Frehywot in a Sept. 30 e-mail that the district’s staff attorney was consulted to ensure the rollout was allowed without a committee vote, although he did not provide the text of the attorney’s evaluation.

But in the same e-mail — a month and a half after implementation — Maloney acknowledged “There has not been direct communication with the families on the waitlist” for any school.

A troubled and troublesome system

The controlled choice policy has long compelled families to leave Cambridge for communities where they can plan a child’s education with more certainty, and this year there is even a candidate for School Committee, Bill Forster, who boils down his campaign to being about parent choice over controlled choice.

As explosive an issue as the Innovation Agenda was last year for its altering of the elementary schools and creation of the upper schools, and as contentious as implementing the agenda has been this year, it is controlled choice that has been causing the most disruption and consternation on the School Committee, with the creation of the controlled choice task force a prologue. It was to end with two other teams in February but instead opted to keep working, then was shut down by a committee majority in June in an all but illegal vote; the issue was revived with the school year, and with it came a renewal in the spasmodic rounds of desperate tinkering committee members engage in as schools slip out of balance no matter what they do.

“This is my eighth year doing this and probably the fourth time we’ve gotten to this point late in the year, just before registration, where we have this discussion,” Maloney told the committee at its Oct. 18 meeting as the members debated such issues as whether “the band around the district [socioeconomic status] for the last three years of actual kindergarten enrollment be established as plus or minus 5 percent for the SES balance in the first cycle of kindergarten assignments.”

As Nolan and others scrambled to find an acceptable patch for campus imbalance — along with vice chairman Marc McGovern observing that “what got us into this mess is tinkering with the formula” and Fred Fantini grumbling that “I actually thought this would be a three-minute conversation” — Maloney expressed frustration at being forced into making changes on the fly.

“I find myself in the incredibly sort of Alice in Wonderland reverse role where I’m here trying to urge caution to something that I pointed out three years ago. I certainly raised it with the controlled choice task force, at the very first meeting a year and a half ago, to point this out as an issue,” Maloney said. “I thought we spoke at the last two meetings about a comprehensive review … and here we are a year and a half later, seemingly at the last minute, trying to address a complex issue quickly.”