Saturday, July 13, 2024

School Committee candidates Joyce Gerber, Mervan Osborne and Bill Forster relax before a candidates forum Oct. 13 at the Cambridge Main Library. (Photo: Marc Levy)

This is not one of those election years voters will have trouble telling the difference among candidates for School Committee. Many of the 11 people running have taken strong positions or explained their motivations for seeking office in atypically strong terms.

Of the six incumbents, certainly Alice Turkel has set herself apart by being the sole committee member to have voted last year against the Innovation Agenda, the district’s plan to create four schools just for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders with coordinated curricula and standards so students arrive at the high school equally prepared. By opposing the end of Cambridge’s longtime K-8 system she has earned a small but vocal fan club. But she is also drawing fire — including at Tuesday’s committee meeting — from citizens, the Cambridge Teachers Association and fellow elected officials for attempting refinements that are seen as undermining a plan that’s been voted and breaking a promise to let the administration fill in the details for later approval. (The charge has been leveled at other committee members as well, but without the suspicions brought on by Turkel’s “no” vote.)

Other incumbents will be addressed Friday. The committee challengers are:

BILL FORSTER, PARENT CHOICE: Bill Forster brings longtime experience in Cambridge public schools, as teacher for 34 years and then as an administrator. And while he stands out from other candidates out for his emphatic stance that administrators and central office workers must not be cut further for budget reasons, saying, “We’ve been cutting bloat since 1984 … we’ve been cutting, we’ve been cutting, we’ve been cutting, I think we’re down to the bone,” it is his stand for “parent choice” versus the district’s problematic controlled choice school selection process that is most significant. “We need more choice and less control,” he says, noting that “I know a number of people who don’t get their first choice [of school] and leave the city.” He wants those people to return, too, telling the Cambridge Civic Journal that the district must “bring families back” and even advertise like businesses and public schools.

JOYCE GERBER, ABILITY GROUPING: Joyce Gerber, a divorce lawyer who helped form the Citywide School Advisory Group — an all-city parents group formed this year to increase communication and collaboration between schools — is bold in proclaiming herself a fan of ability grouping in schools. “This is the issue I talk about a lot, and I know it isn’t always the popular opinion,” she said at an Oct. 13 forum. “I believe in ability grouping.” The practice of sorting children into groups by abilities, usually defined as some being set on a college track and others onto a vocational track, has been controversial dating back to the 1800s and is certainly so in Cambridge, where Turkel voted against the Innovation Agenda, weeping, because it didn’t include an amendment specifically barring the district from leveling or tracking kids. Gerber is blunt about her support for the practice, though, since not every teacher is able to instruct three levels of student learners at once and the district may not be able to supply two teachers per classroom or enough support that one can do it. “I went to a private school, we were all motivated, we were all reasonably well educated, we were still grouped,” she said. Speaking of her own abilities, though, could be confusing when compared: “I believe in the transformative power of education, and I have proven it by earning many degrees.”

JOHN HOLLAND, OBJECTIVITY: John Holland is unique in his lack of emphasis on educational ideology and accentuation of what his skills in finance and as a human resources professional can do for the district. “I am not looking to run the schools. I am here to make sure the schools are well run,” he has said at candidates forums, listing experience at mergers and acquisitions, corporate growth strategy, organizational development and performance transformation — although not at cutting out jargon — alongside assurances that “I am not part of any special interest group with any agenda, and through my career, I have learned to be open-minded and willing to listen to all opinions.” His endorsement from 16-year former committee member Joe Grassi also plays up Holland’s “critical outside perspective [and] background in management and human resources.”

MERVAN OSBORNE, PROFESSIONALISM: Mervan Osborne brings to the table two decades of experience in education, but it’s the extremes of that experience that’s interesting: After a dozen years at Cambridge’s ritzy Buckingham Browne & Nichols private day school, he left to start the Beacon Academy charter school in Boston to give poorer, struggling students an extra year between eighth grade and high school to close exactly the same kind of achievement gap that has bedeviled Cambridge’s public schools for so long. He also directs a summer youth film and drama camp, which fits nicely with the district’s focus on and accomplishment in the arts. But none of these things make Osborne as remarkable a candidate as does the very professionalism of his campaign. He has young, enthusiastic supporters at his every event, exhibiting near cultish devotion, and a sophisticated and flawless multimedia presence suggesting not just a relentless attention to detail but the ability to motivate others to excel individually and as a team. The danger here would be that he is all flash and no substance; a fancy website does not qualify him for a role guiding educational policy. But his résumé, including his step away from the gloss of BB&N and into the uncertainty and grit of Beacon Academy seven years ago, should calm those fears, while the sophistication of his campaign makes him seem a good person to keep the district pushing at technological boundaries, much as Leland Cheung does for the City Council. That could be valuable in a district where the high school newspaper is still a newspaper.

CHARLES STEAD, SAFETY: Charles Stead has marked himself as the candidate who cares about safety. While it risks seeming eccentric, his biography as an educator able to bring peace to tense situations has led him to explore kids’ safety at each district campus and on buses by seeing if he can infiltrate them without identifying himself to authorities. He told the crowd at a Central Square candidates forum that he was able to get close to students unannounced throughout the district. That makes him of interest to parents concerned Cambridge may someday face extreme school violence or a kidnapping or stranger molestation crisis, but he also seems focused on safety to such a degree (including giving “the hostilities that are within this country” as a cause of his worry) that he seems unfocused on other issues, and his attention to the campaign online and at candidate events has been spotty.