Sunday, May 26, 2024

James Maloney, the Cambridge Public Schools’ chief operating officer, says problems at the School Committee’s meeting room are being resolved. (Photo: Rachel Offerdahl)

The giant changes coming in September via the school district’s Innovation Agenda have resulted in giant debates and a resulting bump in people coming to School Committee meetings, only to find a single, “staff-only” restroom, no Internet access and even cellphone blackouts.

James Maloney, the district’s chief operating officer, explained why:

“The building is still not technically finished,” he said Friday, explaining that contractors are still working through a “punch list” of items to be perfected on a building connected to Cambridge Rindge & Latin high school, which had a grand opening Oct. 1 after $112 million in improvements. “The School Committee area was the final section of the building to be addressed, with priority having been given to the educational program. Some of the issues … are a direct result of the timing of the work.”

School Committee members have been hit by some of the technological problems. Marc McGovern mentioned them in a hearing with the City Council this month in Sullivan Chambers, where committee meetings had been held until Dec. 20 while school construction was going on. When a Cambridge Chronicle reporter attended a committee meeting in late March, he said satirically that he was going to tweet to the world that he’d managed to get a Wi-Fi connection — only to come up against the same filter intended to keep students from spending time on Facebook and other social media and to find “access denied.”

Many of the issues have been addressed, Maloney said.

The cellphone troubles are among the easiest to fix. While the district is looking at installing a cellphone extender to improve service for non-Verizon users, its workers are also taking responsibility for checking the room before Tuesday night meetings to ensure access hasn’t mistakenly been shut off since “two incidents when a contractor working on the meeting room simply plugged the cellphone receiver into the wrong portal.”

The Internet troubles arise from trying to keep the room’s public Wi-Fi network separate from the school’s filtered network for students, he explained. “Shortly after opening the room this past winter we realized that there was not enough bandwidth, and that has now been addressed. The public network originally had a filter that restricted access to certain sites so that students could not hop on. We are now disabling that filter for the Tuesday night meetings,” Maloney said. The meetings take place long after school ends for the day.

He also clarified restroom issues:

The bathroom is not a staff bathroom, it is a public restroom. For much of this school year the contractor had not installed the electronic locking system on the door that separates the students from the public area and occasionally students found their way into the area and used the restroom. Frustrated by this, a staff member posted a “staff only” sign. That sign has been removed.  The architects monitored attendance at School Committee meeting for almost a year and recommended that only one public bathroom was needed. Even with somewhat larger attendance brought on this year by discussions about the Innovation Agenda we have not had complaints about only one bathroom.

Maloney didn’t answer flaws in technology such as the flatscreen televisions installed in the room, although the issue was raised in a letter sent him seeking comment. (The city’s poor skills on all things audiovisual has been a recurring complaint of city councillor Ken Reeves, who is asking for an outside consultant to help Cambridge make presentations visible to officials and audience members.) The lack of online streaming of committee meetings, which has been off for several weeks and frustrating those trying to watch from home, remains to be addressed. The posting of video of regular meetings is up to date, though, with even the May 15 meeting online via the committee’s Web page.