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021014i early educationAfter arriving at Monday’s meeting of the City Council with a complete proposal for an Early Education Services Task Force, City Manager Richard C. Rossi was forced by councillors to turn Tuesday into a “task force day” for reconsidering the makeup of the 15-member body.

The goal is to give all 4-year-olds everything needed to set them up for academic success, closing the city’s persistent academic achievement gap of race and class, and the task force envisioned by Rossi was filled with powerful officials who could take on determining what programs were needed, where they would go and how they would be funded.

Rossi is atop the task force list, along with deputy and assistant city managers and top finance officials and the top administrators in the school district. A Head Start leader and Nancy Tauber of the Kids’ Council are on the list, along with three local experts in child care and family support.

But the councillors wanted to see a different kind of expert.

“I have to agree with my colleagues. I understand you not wanting to have too large a committee, but when I see the final report I want to see so-and-so is a parent – not parent and city employee or parent and something else, just a regular, run of the mill parent, because that says my voice was represented,” councillor E. Denise Simmons said. “The other group I found conspicuously absent was family liaisons. How do we not have any family liaisons on this committee? I’ll say it again: I’m happy the committee exists. I’m disappointed there are no family liaisons.”

Among the councillors who spoke on the topic, only Craig Kelley did so to say that he thought the makeup of the task force was fine, considering that its job was to bring forward recommendations the council would have to decide among.

Marc McGovern wanted to be sure home care providers had a say, and Dennis Benzan – inspired by the work of his mother – saw yet another lack in there being no family daycare providers on the panel, because he felt its membership had to be “representative of the groups that would be significantly impacted [by policy changes]. I would like to see them be a significant and a permanent part of the task force,” even getting together to select five members from among them to be part of the panel.

E. Denise Simmons is Cambridge’s only female city councillor in this two-year term.

Councillor E. Denise Simmons insists an early education task force include “a regular, run of the mill parent.”

Leland Cheung and Nadeem Mazen also had concerns about its mix of experts, with Mazen crediting parent Emily Dexter’s public comment at the start of the meeting as a plausible formula for correcting being “light on community members.” (Dennis Carlone offered his own expert help as an urban planner and architect.)

Rossi, seeing the task force ballooning into the dozens, was initially resistant.

“This is already a rather large task force,” he said, promising that it would be diligent in consulting with stakeholders throughout the community – but in testimony rather than as members. “I’ll engage the widest group of people I can. If we find there’s a necessity to add people we can do that [later]. I’m not shutting it out, I’m just saying at this point I’m not inclined to make it even bigger than it is.”

But the councillors continued to express their concerns, with Simmons being the most relentless in insisting it mattered who was “invited to the table” and drawing applause from the audience when saying she wanted not just at least one parent on the task force, but “someone that doesn’t get a paycheck from the city.”

Ultimately Rossi suggested he would look again at the makeup of the task force. “Tomorrow will be task force day,” he told the councillors. “We’ll get it right.”

A distant deadline

The speed the task force worked at didn’t get quite as much sustained attention from the councillors, although Cheung, Mazen and McGovern all seemed worried by the June 2015 deadline – about a year and a half away – especially after McGovern’s work leading a Blue Ribbon Committee on Early Education Care with then-city councillor Marjorie Decker in 2010.

While Rossi agreed with Mazen it was possible to give task force progress reports as the months passed, he wouldn’t commit to an earlier deadline after prodding by Cheung, who said it rose to “a certain level of urgency because every year that we don’t have a system in place is another year that an entire group of kids will never have the benefit of this programming.”

The deadline concerned McGovern for yet another reason: A June report comes after a budget cycle and would push any funding and implementation of early education initiatives to at least the next fiscal year.

“If we finish sooner, by all means we will finish sooner,” Rossi said. “Given all the questions we’re going to have around where this fits in within the city budget and within the schools, how does it affect the nonprofits and human services programs, and all the stakeholders we want to talk to and all the experts, it will take this much time.”

After the discussion councillors voted general approval of the task force. Simmons was the exception, choosing to vote only that she was “present.”