Wednesday, May 22, 2024

School staff members show support Tuesday at a School Committee meeting for wrapping up contract negotiations. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

More than 100 school staff members turned out for Tuesday’s School Committee meeting to push for a resolution to contract negotiations, accompanied by a letter with more than 1,000 signatures – topping 80 percent of the staff. The educators in “units A/B,” which include teachers, librarians and some other staff and school-based administrators, have been working without a contract since August.

It was a dramatically staged appearance during public comment. Dan Monahan, president of the Cambridge Educators Association, was the first speaker of the evening, and he was joined at the table by Mary Elizabeth Cranton, a Cambridge Street Upper School math teacher; Jennie Chung and Billy McDonald, Putnam Avenue Upper School social studies and science teachers; and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School Dean Tanya Milner.

“We stand behind our bargaining team in asking you for a fair contract,” said Cranton, as eight staff members wearing white “I Am Union” T-shirts came through a side door between the room and a high school hallway to stand behind the speakers.

The were followed by dozens more teachers and staff, each carrying blue and white signs that read “Settle the Contract” or “We are the CEA,” entering single file in complete silence. By the time they were done, the room behind the speakers was packed.

“The preamble of the CEA proposals states,” Chung read, that the union “understands that teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. We propose the following to increase the quality of student learning conditions in Cambridge Public Schools.” She listed six goals: “the time and space and professional dignity” to educate students in “meaningful” ways; “consistent, meaningful and efficient” teacher evaluations; time for collaboration; control over curriculum, district initiatives and district assessments; and the ability to “afford a long-term career” in Cambridge. The latter may refer to issues raised by staff in other forums, such as the lack of Cambridge housing affordable to teachers and the inability of teachers living in other towns to have their children enroll in Cambridge public schools – something some other districts allow.

In keeping with committee rules on public comment, the demonstration got no response from members other than Mayor E. Denise Simmons’ “thank you for your testimony.” The room remained quiet for several minutes as the teachers filed out in single file, and the meeting carried on.

Level Up: Policy or micromanaging?

Participating in collective bargaining for unionized staff contracts is a primary role of the School Committee, along with overseeing the budget, hiring the superintendent and developing and overseeing policy – as opposed to administering policy, the superintendent’s bailiwick. Tuesday’s meeting was an unintended primer on the difficulty of separating policy from operations.

First, the committee examined a Feb. 7 motion by members Emily Dexter and Patty Nolan asking for a report on the Level Up program, in which ninth-grade English classes will combine honors and non-honors students while providing extra supports for “struggling” students. The original motion called for more details, with emphasis on including “anticipated outcomes and measures of success.”

“For any of us to judge whether this has worked,” Nolan said, “we have to define what success means.”

This was resisted by members Fred Fantini, Kathleen Kelly and Simmons, who felt it stepped beyond the committee’s role of policymaking. “I think we need to show faith in [the principal and the superintendent] and not micromanage this process,” Fantini said.

Kelly agreed, saying she has been “impressed” with the quality and quantity of information from Superintendent Kenneth Salim’s administration on a number of issues and was inclined to rely on its judgment. “I think this is less a policy issue than an operational issue.”

Simmons added somewhat cryptically that she “commend[ed] the School committee for taking this on. [We] took a brave step.” The initiative had in fact been long developed by Principal Damon Smith and his staff, who were forced to make a public presentation on Level Up to the committee earlier than they had wanted when committee members started getting inquiries from rising ninth-grade parents hearing rumors while on CRLS tours. The committee also decided it did not need to vote whether to approve the program, which would be needed for “policy” changes.

Simmons also said the requested information on outcomes and measures by April “was impossible” and called the request “micromanaging.”

Manikka Bowman, Nolan and Dexter pushed back. “That is not micromanaging,” Nolan said. “Asking for specific … goals is our job. That is what we are elected to do. The specifics of how it is done is up to the superintendent.”

“As adults,” Simmons said, “we can agree to disagree.”

Salim, finally asking to speak, said he had no problem providing measures of anticipated outcomes, emphasizing that it is an important part of his work in developing the program as well as a key element of his approach to all his work as a superintendent. He promised to continue including the information regularly in weekly progress reports to the committee. The problem with a “report,” per se, he said, is that it connotes an endpoint, whereas this will be ongoing.

The district now has a webpage on the Level Up program, and intends to continue updating as information becomes available. Important things to add, Dexter urged, are not only measures of outcome, but details on class size (which Smith has said will be dropped to 18 from 24 for Level Up, although whether that is an average or a maximum is not clear).

With weekly updates promised, the motion for a report was ultimately “put on file” – that is, shelved.

Salim also promised to address an issue raised in public comment by parent Jacob Barandes, on what plans are being made to support advanced learners, particularly in the Level Up program. Specifically, Barandes focused on “underprivileged and unidentified students – often students of color” who are advanced learners but, without advocates, rely on “miracles to get what they need.”

Building space: Policy or operational issue?

The committee also addressed a motion by Simmons and Fantini to direct the superintendent to discuss with the City Manager Louis A. DePasquale whether the high school’s Media Technology program can expand into space housed by the City’s 22 View Program to accommodate increased enrollment.

Dexter said she was supportive, but noted that it was an “operational issue,” after which Fantini said laughingly, “I knew I would take a hit on this.”

Bowman recommended that the motion be referred to her Buildings and Grounds subcommittee, which is meeting today and scheduled to address space needs for all schools. Nolan agreed, saying it was “good governance” to fold it into the meeting.

Harding and Simmons did not want any delay on this issue, which has been a problem for a few years. The move to refer it to the buildings subcommittee failed, and on a voice vote it was passed to have the superintendent go directly to the city manager.

Snow days: Policy or micromanaging?

A motion by Bowman and Kelly asked the school department to reevaluate the process for calling snow days “to ensure a timely notification” to the community – prompted in part by two February dates when surrounding communities began canceling school as early as noon the previous day. Cambridge was one of the last to act, with “the call” made in the evening. Bowman talked about the difficulty of teachers and parents to arrange for child care late in the day and urged review “so we are giving people enough time to plan their lives out.”

Salim – invoking an argument school superintendents must be able to say in their sleep – said it’s an imperfect science. Recognizing that predictability would be an ideal thing, weather, he said, is anything but predictable. “We never take it lightly,” he said. “We know it impacts staff and families. Our main goal is always to open school safely.”

“This is an operational issue,” Nolan said. “It’s not policy. I understand that this is a really difficult issue. But unless I hear something different, I don’t want to support this because I don’t think it’s our role.”

The motion to ask the superintendent to reexamine the process of declaring snow days was passed by voice vote. Nolan was alone in voting no. Kelly was out of the room for the vote.

Other issues

Residents – including students – wore blue T-shirts Tuesday to show support for efforts to increase awareness of language immersion programs. (Photo: Jean Cummings)

A Fantini motion to encourage greater outreach efforts to increase awareness of district language immersion programs – including the Olá and Chinese Mandarin programs – passed unanimously without comment. The motion, about a policy emphasizing immersion programs, had a definite operational tinge. Several parents, teachers, and students from Olá appeared at public comment to reiterate February comments by Olá teacher Fabiane Noronha on her observations of the power of marketing materials, outreach and even billboards in Utah in increasing enrollment in immersion programs. After the motion was passed among a group of other motions, Fantini asked for a break in the meeting so that he “could explain to the Olá folks in the room what just happened.” The blue-shirted crowd broke into smiles and applause.

A Dexter motion to reexamine school bus safety policy with an eye to the use of seat belts got members talking about whether this was the right time – mid-budget season – to ask the superintendent to review policy. Nolan added that this policy, like others, is reviewed regularly, with school buses shown to be “the safest form of transportation bar none, even without seat belts.” The motion was placed on file; Dexter, Fantini and Nolan voted to refer it to the superintendent, but were outvoted by the other four.

A Dexter motion was primarily a recommendation that Salim “take into account” three specific reports related to closing the achievement gap. Dexter ended up withdrawing the motion after a discussion in which other members questioned its purpose, and Salim said he was concerned that it singled out three reports among the many he and his staff have been reviewing.

Finally, the committee spent 10 minutes discussing a motion by Simmons to identify the first Tuesday of August as the standing date for the committee summer meeting, as opposed to continue to find a workable date each year. The motion was passed on a voice vote, with Dexter, Harding and Nolan against.

In addition, the committee passed unanimously a revision to student records policy to allow all kindergarteners to have a Cambridge Public Library card unless they opt out; approval of $30,000 for out-of-district special education tuition, $68,000 for computer software and $25,500 for computer hardware contracts, and a $5,000 grant award for City Sprouts. They also approved letters of recognition for the Posse Foundation scholarship winners and condolences to the mother of Mara Gibbs, a 2015 graduate of CRLS who died in an Oregon fire. A Harding motion to congratulate Casey Affleck on his best actor Oscar was withdrawn without comment.