Figuring out votes for School Committee? Remember this about your incumbents
Voters will soon have to rank a dozen candidates for School Committee and consider how well Mayor E. Denise Simmons did in leading the panel’s work – whether its incumbents deserve to be reelected, taking into account how much of the past two-year term was spent.
This is the state’s highest-paid school committee but, by some measures, not a very busy one. Members earn $38,000 annually, way ahead of everyone else in the state. Their peers in Worcester get $14,900 a year; in Boston, a $7,500 stipend; in Brookline, nothing. On average statewide, committees meet around 70 to 75 times a year, and some meet up to 100 times. Our committee met 62 times from September 2016 to August 2017. Committee’s bylaws say members should reserve three Tuesdays per month for school work, but that is ignored.
Subcommittee leadership has been inconsistent, because assignments were made poorly. Vice chairman and committee éminence grise Fred Fantini makes subcommittee leadership assignments, and this term gave Kathleen Kelly five to run, including the budget subcommittee. But in the past two years, Kelly has held only four meetings if you exclude her budget work – two per year of the subcommittees where Simmons says members “roll up their sleeves” and hammer out detailed policy for Cambridge Public Schools. A roundtable of district partner organizations to be held by Kelly’s Curriculum and Achievement Subcommittee by February also did not happen. By contrast, eager-beaver first-term committee member Emily Dexter was given a single subcommittee (a month ago she received a second, ad hoc group to chair) that met seven times. This comparison points out some terrible decision-making on Fantini’s part and a failure of leadership by Kelly.
The committee tried to look busy while doing very little. Having decided that first-year Superintendent Kenneth Salim deserved time for “on-boarding” in his new school district, committee members also set aside issues in the spring with the promise to talk about them at their sole summer meeting – and then did not. When reconvening for the fall and finding those issues still around, members sent them to an “ad hoc subcommittee on the superintendent’s transition,” chaired by the systems-driven Manikka Bowman, where it was somehow discovered that several of the topics had nothing to do with the superintendent. So the subcommittee sent the topics away again; months later, with the term winding up, only some have seen action. This is also how the School Committee found itself barely able to handle the topic of whether it should offer child care at meetings so more parents could attend, an issue already handled by other bodies across the district. (A single budget hearing offered child care.)
It was outshone by high school students. As well-paid, adult committee members bickered and delayed or fumbled topics that could have been simple, high school students stepped in to show they would and sometimes could do the work their elders found impossible. On such things as a student dress code and free feminine hygiene products, students made themselves available, had the answers and got initiatives pushed through.
It acknowledged itself as a roadblock for change. Learning that the city’s high school and administrators were working to undo de facto tracking at the high school, with some students relegated to misnamed “college prep” classes that essentially forced them onto a path away from college, the School Committee brought district officials in to report, then opted out of involvement. In November 2016, Simmons made it clear how useless the committee had made itself by telling the renegades: “I applaud that you are not waiting for a School Committee policy. I don’t want to slow this down.” By March she had seemingly forgotten how little her panel had to do with it, and said she “commend[ed] the School committee for taking this on. [We] took a brave step.”
It looked for ways to do even less. Amid all of the discussion delay, subcommittee shuffling and willingness to let massive policy changes happen around them, the School Committee might have avoided a nadir in May, during a discussion on school choice and the district’s broken kindergarten lottery. That’s when Kelly proposed putting off the discussion until after November’s election, and apparently until the new committee had been seated (though the committee instead sent the issue to member Patty Nolan’s subcommittee, where it was resolved). This ongoing issue had been brought to a school council two years earlier, yet Kelly felt May was too early to look at it when an election was a full six months away and the next committee would sit eight months later. A report filed in 2015 by the city’s Early Childhood Education Task Force highlighted the need for expanded junior kindergarten options; repeated efforts by Dexter to get the committee to follow up on the expansion of a program already under their purview were rebuffed by most of her colleagues. Their argument? They said they were deferring to the task force.
It wasted time on petty bickering and cheap politics. Dexter arrived on the committee gung-ho, with a sharp-elbowed, focused and data-driven approach that appeared to literally madden some fellow members, who responded by spending much of the two-year term on bizarrely and unproductively hostile behavior seemingly focused on denying her any legislative accomplishments. Members such as Fantini and Kelly made it a habit to offer copycat orders so Dexter’s motions weren’t the ones that passed. Rudeness to Dexter was blatant, with members trying to claim a high road for their own beliefs even when it put them demonstrably in the wrong. Simmons practiced how punctilious she could be, mainly to cut off Dexter’s comments and show disdain; the mayor also showed spite in turning an informal request by Dexter about committee honorifics (“Ms. Dexter,” for instance) into a formal motion that brought on extended, befuddled debate, dragging committee members into a thicket where literally no one wanted to go, and similarly twisted a Dexter motion on class size into an administrative insult and existential referendum on an entire program. The disrespect extended even to using Robert’s Rules of Orders incorrectly, such as when member Richard Harding would call out for a “roll call” vote to shut Dexter down – a maneuver that actually needs seconding and a two-thirds majority to take place, as Dexter had to point out. This approach was a slap in the face of the voters who sent Dexter to the committee, but theoretically good service to constituents who voted in the hopes of getting the School Committee to waste crucial time and accomplish even less than usual. Dexter may have been brash, but In this regard, the only members who come out clean are Nolan and Dexter herself.
All of this led off with an artificial inactivity based on the argument that the district needed a period of stasis while a new superintendent found his footing, which itself followed months of stasis when little got done because the previous superintendent was leaving. The committee was distracted by a search process and holding back from changing policies that might conflict with what a new superintendent wanted to do.
Yet Salim’s six months of analysis and introspection did not result in significant changed policies or proposals. On the spectrum of long-awaited projects that disappoint, Salim’s “entry plan” isn’t quite a “Phantom Menace” – perhaps more of a “Tulip Fever” – but he did himself no favors by calling the document “an audacious vision.” It is not. The early reviews (the committee got a glimpse in November) didn’t change the end product much (it was unveiled formally in June), yet Harding somehow still went from telling Salim “We knew a lot of this stuff … you knew all this stuff coming in” to “I think we’ve arrived” despite a document that remained vague, filled with played-out educational buzzwords and padded with platitudinous observations rather than accountable details. As one parent said, “If this took a whole year, how long will it take to get anything done?”
The quality of School Committee work will have to be judged in the privacy of the voting booth.
Nolan stayed well clean of the bickering. Dexter shares Nolan’s work ethic and data-driven approach, and also her right to claim another term on the committee. But did the mayor’s leadership earn a high ranking in her reelection bid for the City Council? Did Harding’s contribution warrant a move to join her on the council? Are these the incumbents that deserve another chance come January? The School Committee’s role is to represent the public in matters of education policy, and it’s doubtful any member of the public would be proud of some of this proxy work from the past two years.