Tension crackles as school officials shuffle items they failed to address during summer
At its first meeting of the school year, the School Committee telegraphed dual messages:
The committee will not be asking the school administration for much – if anything – this semester.
And the meetings are going be very tense, if Tuesday’s tone is any indication.
The majority of committee members have taken the position that new superintendent Kenneth Salim has a “full plate” and that they need to be “very mindful of his on-boarding priorities,” in the words of member Manikka Bowman, head of the Superintendent Transition Planning Ad-Hoc Subcommittee created last year for the incoming Salim, who officially started work July 1. Thus, members began tapering off passing committee-generated policy motions in the spring, and on Tuesday passed only two motions, including one by Bowman referring three issues and five motions raised last spring to her subcommittee for “prioritization” and to “make additional recommendations for items not dealt with in the short term to be referred to subcommittees for further vetting and review.”
The three issues are listed as “the achievement gap, teachers of color [and] sexual assault and harassment.” The five motions were first presented in the June 7 and June 21 meetings and concern encouraging committee members to visit each school every year; reviewing class size policies; summarizing costs and benefits of community partner organizations; assigning review of the superintendent to the Transition Ad-Hoc Subcommittee; and exploring the feasibility of providing child care at committee meetings. Complementary June motions by Mayor E. Denise Simmons and member Richard Harding on improving attraction and retention of teachers of color were explicitly set aside this spring for addressing at the summer retreat.
Each of these motions and issues had been referred to the August retreat “for discussion,” many without dialogue or comment. At the June 7 meeting, vice chairman Fred Fantini moved to refer several of the motions before any talk because “they were worthy of a deeper discussion.” At the time, member Emily Dexter said the issue of whether the committee could provide child care, proposed by herself, Simmons and Bowman, was merely asking for information and maybe did not need to be pushed to the retreat.
At that point, Simmons had said that the committee was pressed for time with the need to go into a closed-door session and “recommend[ed] that the committee be less talkative,” urging that members vote “up or down” on moving the items to the retreat. It was quickly done.
But at that summer retreat, there was no discussion on any of the issues or the motions. Instead, Bowman volunteered that her subcommittee would meet to prioritize the various issues for presentation to Salim, a proposal warmly and readily received by Simmons and Harding. Dexter and member Patty Nolan expressed surprise they would not be discussing any of the items. Nolan tried to make the case that asking about the feasibility of child care during committee meetings didn’t involve the superintendent and should be addressed. Dexter agreed and argued for collecting information on partner organizations and starting work on class-size policy. Even several issues singled out during the school year by Simmons as deserving “deep discussion” – such as attracting and retaining teachers of color and addressing the achievement gap – were given no more than one sentence of attention at the summer retreat. Instead, during the four-plus hour meeting, the committee spent much of their time focused on “visioning” exercises, including listing what each member means by “excellent education.”
Thus, the committee arrived at Tuesday’s meeting with a motion outlining the intent to send these issues to the Ad Hoc Transition Subcommittee for “prioritization.”
“I had some confusion about this,” said Nolan, after Dexter asked Bowman to “walk us through this motion.”
“We haven’t had a chance to discuss these issues,” Nolan said. “I had hoped we would discuss them at the retreat, but we didn’t. My goal is to move forward and have these start to be outlined and discussed. This seems to be one way to do it, which is as good as any other way. I really want it to be scheduled as soon as we can.”
Member Kathleen Kelly thanked Bowman for “the work done on putting this motion together,” saying there hadn’t been enough time at the retreat.
Things get tense
But Dexter was not mollified. She asked specifically that three of the motions – providing meeting child care, reviewing class sizes and summarizing partnership organizations – be moved forward immediately.
The child care issues, she said, required only information – how do other Cambridge school groups provide child care during meetings? – and could be handled by the administration’s family engagement team. She suggested the partnership organization summary could be moved to a subcommittee to provide a comparison or to be referred to Deputy Superintendent Carolyn Turk. “Would that be helpful to the superintendent?” she asked.
And regarding class size, Dexter reminded the committee that when this issue is raised at budget time, they are told it is too late to review. “I’m not asking for class size reduction” – something she has lobbied for – “but for information.”
The tone in the meeting got snippy. “Is she bringing this in as amendment?” Fantini asked.
Dexter allowed that it could be an amendment, at which point Simmons asked for another member to second bringing the amendment to the table. After a bit of silence, Nolan seconded it “so that we can have a discussion.” Fantini tried to comment, but Dexter interrupted, “It’s my amendment, so can I explain it?”
“This is an unfriendly amendment,” Harding interjected, chastising Dexter for apparently undermining the committee’s attempt to “try to take work off of the superintendent,” with Simmons vehemently nodding along.
Bowman agreed with Harding that she viewed this as “unfriendly.” “Whenever you work in a [institutional] body,” she said, “there are instances when you just have to learn to work with people as it relates to moving something forward. To only bring forth the items that you brought forth as a motion does not come across as friendly.”
Dexter tried to respond, but was interrupted by Simmons with questions about whether she wanted this to be a “friendly amendment or a regular amendment.” Harding interjected and asked for a roll-call vote, which shuts down all conversation.
“That has to have a two-thirds vote, please,” said Dexter, who had clearly been boning up on Robert’s Rules of Orders, the set of protocols Simmons has stressed she follows closely. Roll-call votes, however, have been implemented regularly the past few years in committee meetings without a two-thirds vote.
“There is only one chair in this room,” Simmons said pointedly.
Simmons asked for a second from a member on accepting the amendment. There was no second.
“I’m sorry that folks here feel that it was an unfriendly amendment,” Dexter said. “I also just want to remind people that by our rules we are not allowed to question the motives of motion makers.”
Simmons Responded: “When we talked at the retreat we said that we would try not to delve into personalities. I don’t think that any of us yet have delved into personalities. I would ask that, particularly where we have student members … maybe we should model better behavior.”
The original motion was passed unanimously, except for Dexter’s vote of “present.” A Transition Ad-Hoc Subcommittee meeting has not yet been scheduled.
Early childhood education
In addition to the dress code policy, once again on the agenda but not discussed to “give the superintendent time to address it,” and Simmons’ motion about affirming a “uniform method” of referring to members, the only substantive business was a motion by Dexter urging the committee and administration to pursue expanding junior kindergarten, currently available only to children who turn 5 years old by March 31 of their junior kindergarten year. Children who turn 5 between April 1 and Aug. 31 are not eligible for junior kindergarten in Cambridge.
Kelly, however, immediately submitted a substitute motion for improvement of educational and support services for birth through third grade. The committee secretary staff handed out copies of her motion while Kelly read it. (Dexter confirmed afterward that she was unaware that Kelly would offer a substitute.)
Harding heaped praise on Kelly for “remembering the hard work” of the 2015 Early Childhood Task Force, a joint city, schools and community endeavor that produced a report she referred to in her motion as she listed the task force’s five broad recommendations.
Simmons joined Harding in her praise of Kelly’s motion and suggested that the work belonged in a roundtable “retreat” between the City Council and School Committee.
Dexter’s motion also cited the Task Force Report specifically as a support for her focus on expanding junior kindergarten. Only Nolan seemed to notice, saying, “Both motions have the same goal: to move forward on early education. I commend the urgency that led to putting it on the agenda.”
Dexter offered support to Kelly’s motion, but cautioned, “I would like to point out that this has been going on for four to five years.” Citing an earlier “blue ribbon commission” along with the task force, she said “I don’t believe we have significantly expanded the number of seats in that time. Junior kindergarten is a system we have total jurisdiction over; the city has no jurisdiction over JK. It is an unfair system for taxpayers to support some 4-year-olds but not others.” It is inequitable, she said, because low-income families are shut out of public junior kindergarten while higher-income 4-year-olds are “given” the taxpayer-supported program.
Dexter pointed out that, especially with sibling preference, a family who has two children starting Tobin Montessori at age 3 are getting the equivalent of four years of free preschool, which at $20,000 a year can equal $80,000 to one family, “regardless of income, just because they won the lottery.”
There was no response; Kelly’s substitute motion for “a commitment to implement” the five major findings of the report was passed unanimously.
There was more inter-committee testiness during contract approvals. Dexter pulled three contracts to ask questions before voting (Harding and Kelly each also pulled one). For a $110,000 contract to the Cambridge Housing Authority for its Work Force program providing student support, Dexter said she wanted to point out for the public how costly it is to provide these quality wraparound support services, which she calculated at $4,400 per person per year. “This is not a criticism,” she said.
Harding took umbrage anyway and spoke to support the program, arguing that it serves “our most vulnerable students.” Fantini also jumped in to sing the praises of the program, saying that its results are “off the charts.”
Dexter, seemingly pressed to defend her comments, reiterated that she “had no qualms about the expenditure.” Saying she joined Harding in wanting to see the program expanded, she stressed that she was simply highlighting what it takes to provide these educational and mentoring services.
Harding himself took aim at a special services contract he thought was too expensive. Dexter had just asked Assistant Superintendent for Student Services Victoria Greer for an explanation for a $268,000 student transportation contract for an out-of-district school. Greer explained that “part of the program design” for the special-needs school included counseling and support services during bus time, and was required by the school. “Thank you,” Dexter said. “That is fascinating.”
Harding, however, was surprised by the price tag. “Eighteen students for $268,000? I would simply say that this is a very expensive school ride. I just wish there were a cheaper, more sustainable way. This would be a very tough strain on any other school system.”
Greer added that for these students, their school year is more than 180 days.
Harding also asked Salim about his familiarity with the Research for Better Teaching initiative, which was getting its third year of funding in a $45,000 contract for providing professional development aimed at improving classroom teaching skills. The consulting firm got much scrutiny during discussions of its first contract year, when a $140,000 contract paid for seven days of Cambridge visits by director Jon Saphier. (The agreement ultimately was shown to include more days of consulting and visits by other RBT staff.)
Salim, in his lengthiest comments of the meeting, said the firm has been “a focus over the course of the last couple of months” and was a major component of a recent retreat with school principals. Salim said he was also familiar with RBT’s work at other locations. “I’ve certainly heard from the principals that there is value in the common focus around this work. It has provided an opportunity of developing a common language” about what practices make effective teaching, he said, though the work is increasingly being led by in-house staff as the firm withdraws. Asked by Nolan if this was the last of the third year contract, Turk said the district was “looking at it year to year. I would not want to say that in future years there will be zero contact with RBT.”
In the end, all contracts were passed unanimously. Others included $72,000 to the Breakthrough Cambridge academic enrichment program, $45,000 to Enroot (formerly Cambridge Community Services) for new immigrant students, $26,000 for computer software support and $41,000 for transportation for homeless students. Also passed were a revision to an employee fingerprint-based policy; and acceptance of the following federal grants: $30,000 to support homeless students, $165,000 for at-risk student support and $57,000 for a special education early childhood paraprofessional.