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City Manager Richard C. Rossi proposed a task force Monday to look at implementing a universal early education program.

Elected officials keen on early childhood education weren’t taking “slow” for an answer Monday.

When the men they appointed to run the city and school district, City Manager Richard C. Rossi and Superintendent Jeffrey Young, suggested during a joint City Council and School Committee roundtable that the city should take a slow but steady path to get all 4-year-olds in school – there is now a cutoff date some have criticized as unfair and arbitrary – many councillors and committee members said that wasn’t good enough.

Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young repeated a plea from May for the ability to focus on changes under way in the district.

Schools Superintendent Jeffrey Young repeated a plea from May for the ability to focus on changes under way in the district.

“A task force makes sense to me … we need to move forward logically,” Rossi said, while Young repeated his wish from May to perfect the historic Innovation Agenda, which aligns curriculum and injected middle schools this year into a district that had always been K-8, before adding tasks and goals that can stress staffers adjusting from dramatic cuts and changes.

“The rest of this meeting has no meaning to me now,” councillor and state Rep. Marjorie Decker said in reply during the roughly dozen minutes she held the floor, starting with bringing Rossi and Young to the table to answer a provocative question: “Is this just an exercise because we occasionally talked about early ed and a councillor or two tried to sabotage the school budget? What is this really about?”

The jab at the five of nine councillors who voted in May to keep the school district’s budget temporarily in committee for further questions went unanswered. But as Decker went on talking, councillor Ken Reeves – not one of the five she’d alluded to – finally burst in with an objection to her sudden domination of the meeting.

“This is a group discussion,” Reeves said, explaining that he agreed with what Decker was saying but “if the context is to be dominated by one person, I can go home.”

“Councillor Reeves, I’m going to wrap it up,” said Decker, who as state representative in the 25th Middlesex District is not running for reelection in November. “I know it’s unusual that someone would spend time substantively on an issue.”

Reasons for urgency

She reminded those gathered for the roundtable that she co-chaired a 13-member Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education with the School Committee’s Marc McGovern, who is running for City Council. The yearlong commission reported its findings in October 2011, including a set of commitments from the city and district and a list of more than a dozen steps to take.

Decker concluded Monday that “for me, right now, going home would be appropriate, until we figure out what the leadership is and how we’re going to get serious about really funding and dedicating ourselves” to the issue of early childhood education for all. Much of the rest of the meeting consisted of other officials agreeing that the work was too urgent to delay.

Early childhood education is considered crucial in ensuring academic success later in life, and the blue-ribbon report endorsed the theory of Nobel laureate economist James J. Heckman that “for every dollar spent on early childhood programs, society saves from to $7 to $11 in funding for ineffective remedial programs.”

Demographically, there is some support for the urgency; city planning information manager Cliff Cook told the city officials that there was a “clear upward trend” of births to Cambridge residents and growth in the number of preschool-aged children that echoed what was seen in other cities, including Brookline and Boston.

“There are a number of communities that are having increases, and its not just communities known for strong schools,” Cook said. “It’s part of this overall migration back to the city from suburbs we’re seeing in the millennial generation.”

Comparing Census data from 2000 to 2010, the number of 3-year-olds rose to 930 from 766, and 4-year-olds rose to 897 from 768. The number of 4-year-olds in the city now numbers around 900, said Assistant City Manager Ellen Semonoff, discussing handouts showing that at least 790 of those are in some kind of early education program, with 329 being served by the public schools in junior kindergarten or Special Start programs. Outside of the district, costs for early education programs can range from free to $1,800 per month.

“A starting point is to get all fours, not some,” into public schools, said School Committee Alice Turkel. “We need to come together and say this is a joint priority. Yes, it’ll be expensive, but I don’t think there’s a person here who wouldn’t say it’ll be worth it – not only worth it because we value it, but because if we do a good job with 4-year-olds, I think we will have to spend less on services.”

“Talking in circles”

She reminded Rossi and Young that further study of the benefits of early education wasn’t needed, and that there should be ways to take action that didn’t involve them overmuch. And McGovern noted that when he arrived on the committee eight years ago, he was shown a plan for early education that had been crafted yet another 11 years earlier. “It’s just too easy to kick the can down the road, and that’s what’s happened,” he said.

At this point, he said, he felt “we can walk and chew gum … And part of the reason we will be able to do it is that we have absolutely amazing people to do the work.”

In June, McGovern issued a call for universal enrollment in September 2014.

“It’s exactly the urgency we need to feel,” committee member Patty Nolan said Monday, describing the issue as ultimately just determining a cost and finding the space.

On the council side, Cheung agreed “we seem to be talking in circles,” and told Rossi and Young that he was “hearing a lot of passion and urgency on this side of the table that wasn’t matched by your earlier comments … we’re not starting from zero, but frankly, we pay you a lot of money for you to figure out the where and how. And I want you to come and tell us.”

Committee member Fred Fantini offered a bit of a compromise. Saying he appreciated the superintendent’s suggestion that it can be good to move slowly, he suggested that efforts begin in the city’s east, where there is a greater need for early childhood education programs. There is a stubborn “east-west divide” in various aspects of city education, with Harvard Square serving as a rough dividing line from the more privileged west.

Support for going slow

Councillor Craig Kelley stood out as agreeing “entirely” with the go-slow approach suggested by Young. “Get the upper-school part right. There’s only so much we can ask of any one person or one program,” Kelley said, noting that the 350 kids needing placement was roughly equivalent to a brand-new school in a district that is already squeezed for space. “I’m fine with studying it, I’m fine with a task force. I would like to understand the logistical constraints, and I don’t know that we want to promise anyone that anything drastic is going to happen soon.”

Planning for a task force to pin down a timeline and budget, as suggested by Rossi, is indeed the next step, Mayor Henrietta Davis said toward the end of the meeting, and another meeting may be called for before that.

And although he began with a note of skepticism about what the elected officials would get back from the process, saying, “I’ve seen plenty of task forces,” committee member Richard Harding ultimately seemed to come down as supportive not only of bluntness in addressing the city manager and superintendent, but of their position as well.

“I appreciate the city manager and superintendent being really candid,” Harding said, simultaneously thanking Decker for setting an urgent and aggressive tone.

“I’m really not interested at all in getting into an endeavor of this magnitude unless it’s going to be high-quality, first-class and beneficial to all the kids of Cambridge,” he said. “I have absolutely no tolerance for a bullshit program.”