Three new missed deadlines in Cambridge issues
Surely the most egregious missed deadline in the past year was city councillors’ flop of a “short-term process” to replace Robert W. Healy after three decades as city manager. Councillor Craig Kelley tried as far back as 2010 to get his peers thinking about a process, but they ignored the issue until Healy actually gave notice, adding nine months to buy time, then opting simply to promote Healy’s longtime deputy when it turns out they’d made no progress.
Lack of action on medical marijuana also raises questions about foot-dragging. Voters last year made pot legal as of Jan. 1, but the state put off action until its Department of Public Health issued regulations on dispensaries. It missed a May 1 deadline by seven days, but Cambridge, which had the largest pro-pot voting majority in the county (and among tops in the state), only started its own 180-day ban as of the issuing of the state’s rules. That deadline: Nov. 4. Will a six-month delay on top of the state’s four-month delay be enough? City Manager Richard C. Rossi promises nothing, telling the Cambridge Chronicle only that “The Health Department is working with other city departments to prepare zoning recommendations, which we hope to have to the City Council sometime this fall.”
Here are three more issues for which officials don’t seem too stressed about meeting the dates they used to sell policy to each other and the public:
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Intrusive lighting, especially from commercial neighbors, has been bothering residents since at least 2007, but that’s not nearly as bad as the fact Cambridge has a light ordinance – it just can’t enforce it. Six years ago the City Council (including six of the nine current members) took a step toward fixing that but let the matter drop, and since then it’s been resident Charles Teague pursuing a solution on his own. He’s filed a citizen petition three times to let people get some sleep, but councillors and the Planning Board have been more successful at criticizing Teague’s law than in crafting their own. The board urged councillors to vote against the Teague petition, saying its staff “would prepare and submit a rezoning petition when the council resumes meeting in September, to be heard and possibly voted on before the end of the calendar year.”
In rejecting Teague’s petition, the council approved instead an order “that the city manager report back by the end of the year” with language for a municipal code.
That was in July. This month Rossi told the council he was putting together a task force and finding a consultant to “begin work in October 2013 and endeavor to finalize recommendations at the beginning of 2014.” Teague is not on the task force.
Deadline missed – and for the past two election cycles, it’s taken councillors two months after the new year to choose a mayor and get to work in their committees.
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One problem people had with a plan to remake 26 acres in Kendall Square: not enough low-priced Massachusetts Institute of Technology apartments to keep some 2,400 graduate students and others from competing to get market-rate rentals from other city residents. Critics from inside and outside the school hoped MIT would build as many as 5,000 units, but the commitment was for about 300 instead. And those canal-side units will tend toward the expensive, as would be expected at a sought-after, high-end address (although 18 percent are to be set aside for low-income tenants).
In winning its zoning, the university said its plans for Kendall remained flexible and promised a Graduate Student Housing Working Group that would look at housing needs for the MIT community. It created the group in March, with leader former chancellor Phillip Clay saying he was “delighted that we are now ready to proceed with our work. We will work hard to accomplish as much as we can before the end of the term.”
The zoning was passed in April, though, with residents and even councillor Leland Cheung expressing concern that a report on housing from the working group wouldn’t come until some three months later – that is, July.
But July and August have come and gone without a peep from the group.
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Algebra for all
School officials already acknowledged in March that the lack of a comprehensive world language program was a “broken promise” in last year’s launch of the district restructuring known as the Innovation Agenda. Parents have moved on to another incomplete part of the plan: that all eighth-graders aren’t getting Algebra I, as district policy said would happen.
“Last year we had all hoped that there would be full Algebra I available to all eighth-graders, and it didn’t happen,” School Committee member Patty Nolan said at a July meeting, and the issue was still on the agenda the next month, when member Alice Turkel urged, “I really think we have to do something immediately.”
Turkel had an added concern, though – not just that not all eighth-graders were getting algebra, but that the way some were and some weren’t seemed an awful lot like “tracking,” an educational method that splits up students based on what they’re expected to achieve academically later in life. A lack of confidence that the Innovation Agenda wouldn’t track was her reason for being the sole vote against it in 2011.
While the rules say it’s okay to group students within classes, the difficulties in teaching algebra to a wide range of kids without enough co-teachers has resulted in kids teaching themselves, including online, or traveling to the high school for instruction – but they have to get themselves to Cambridge Rindge & Latin and back, raising parents’ concerns about safety and lost teaching time. Some families have turned to tutors.
“This committee voted to have heterogenous classes, and what has been created in response … is actually so opposite,” Turkel said. “We have a hyper tracking system.”
District Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk suggested a plan over the summer that would last for a single year and be evaluated, and it includes a chance for students to test out of Algebra I altogether. But Nolan, who organized a math roundtable with the City Council back in 2010, noted that students across the state struggle with this test, and that only about 10 percent of district students pass it – down from 14 percent a few years ago.
The district continues to grapple with the issue, with an update from Turk due at Tuesday’s committee meeting, but the issue is clear: To give a range of students different levels of instruction and have them wind up at the same place, more teachers are needed – and the budget isn’t there.