Friday, July 12, 2024

Cambridge School Committee candidates after a forum Wednesday at the Cambridge Main Library. (Photo: Alex Bowers)

School Committee candidates talked about standardized tests, educator pay and retention and the work of superintendent Victoria Greer at a candidate town hall Wednesday held by the Cambridge Educators Association at the Cambridge Public Library.

Eleven candidates are vying for six at-large seats on the committee. Nine candidates participated at the forum: incumbents Caroline Hunter, José Luis Rojas Villarreal, David J. Weinstein and Rachel Weinstein (no relation); and challengers Richard Harding, Elizabeth Hudson, Andrew King, Eugenia Schraa Huh and Robert V. Travers Jr.

Two incumbents chose not to run for reelection: Fred Fantini announced his retirement after serving 20 terms, and Ayesha Wilson is running for a City Council seat.

Candidates Alborz Bejnood and Frantz Pierre did not participate.

The candidates were largely in agreement on most issues, though incumbents were sometimes cautious and stressed collaboration over confrontation, while challengers were more free to critique the status quo in questions posed by moderator Joel Patterson, a math teacher at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, supported by Banke Oluwole, the vice president of community relations at the CEA, the educators’ labor organization.

High School MCAS Tests

Candidates were universally in favor of removing the MCAS as a “high stakes test” that determines whether a student graduates – a goal of the Thrive Act, a bill state legislators are debating – but wanted alternative ways to evaluate and ensure teaching effectiveness and student learning.

Massachusetts is one of the few states that requires a high-stakes test, Rojas noted.

Candidates including Hunter spoke of strengthening the curriculum so students can pass the MCAS without issues, with Schraa holding up a printed copy of one and saying the district should prepare every student to ace the test even if it is not required.

Harding noted that he’d supported removing the test requirement during his previous tenure on the committee – he’s served seven terms beginning in 2001 – but the test has endured. Travers encouraged audience members, who were largely educators, to submit testimony in favor of the Thrive Act to the Legislature before its next hearing Oct. 14.

Superintendent communication

Because “the previous and current superintendents have not done enough to operate transparently and to engage all stakeholders, including students, families and educators,” moderator Patterson asked candidates how they would hold a superintendent accountable.

The incumbents stressed collaboration; challengers were more pugnacious.

Several candidates referred to the committee’s recent lukewarm performance review of Greer.

Hunter said the assessment was fair, lauding Greer’s efforts with reading and curricula frameworks while highlighting the need for improvement in community relationships, communication and management. She noted that it’s the committee’s job to “support the superintendent, not to literally do her job.”

Communication with families and building trust with school communities and educators were priorities, though Travers didn’t seem to expect things to get better quickly: He urged the audience to file Freedom of Information Act requests to read the weekly reports Greer sends the committee.

There was a complaint from Hudson that “School Committee meetings get bogged down in presentations.”

“It’s hard to have accountability without clarity,” Hudson said. “A simple short list of what we want to accomplish and how we’re gong to get there” is needed.

Harding was blunt: “Check my record, no one has hired or fired more supers than me,” Harding said, referring to his previous service on the committee. “But I don’t know that that’s the answer. I want to make sure that we have a strong relationship with the superintendent that we hold accountable to make sure that she’s reaching the goals.”

Paraprofessional salaries

Patterson noted that the starting salary of a full-time paraprofessional is $26,000 – and committee members are paid $47,000 for a part-time position – and asked candidates how they’d address a wage issue that’s bad for workers and the district.

There was universal support for raising paraprofessional salaries, with Schraa citing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data showing $52,000 was half the median income for a single person in the metro area that includes Cambridge.

Rachel Weinstein said she would support higher wages during contract negotiations (“not just fair pay, but good pay”), as would Hunter, who said that as a retired educator she values paraprofessionals’ work. “For sure ‘paras’ don’t get a fair share,” Harding said. “I would pay all the money in the world if all kids get good education,” adding that “there are a lot of problems in Cambridge, but money isn’t one of them.”

Cambridge’s tax base is under-levied, Hudson said, and higher taxes could bring in more money for schools. District administrative positions should be scrutinized, she said, pointing to an open position for a chief of staff. (In the meantime, King, Rojas and Schraa highlighted the paraprofessional career pathway at Lesley University, which offers discounted tuition to earn master’s degrees and teaching licenses.)

Recruiting and retaining educators

There were several panel questions on the difficulty of hiring and keeping educators, particularly educators of color in a district that even now has unfilled positions. “Significant recruiting to historically black colleges” lapsed years ago, and an affirmative-action event at the high school is no longer held, Hunter said.

King said offering quality education is “an economic justice issue and it’s a racial equity issue” and stressed that “retaining educators of color is critical for students of color to have racial representation and feelings of belongingness,” suggesting a Boston teachers residency as a model for Cambridge.

District culture was a key topic among candidates. Several, including Travers and Rachel Weinstein, focused on using exit interviews to help understand why teachers leave, with Weinstein citing resignations in late summer from the Fletcher Maynard Academy and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School as examples of the problem. Exit interviews are vital to understanding the cause, and the committee should insist on seeing the data, she said.

Rojas pushed for more support for principals, who set the tone for their schools and have an outsize influence on their staff. Travers, who works at the Peabody elementary school, agreed. The principal “sticks up for us,” and educator turnover has been extremely low for the past three years as a result, he said.

A culture of transparency with competitive wages and benefits is necessary to recruit the best talent, including nurturing new talent, and that a CRLS student is a potential teacher for the district, Hudson said.

Several candidates noted that while contract negotiations continue, the lack of a teacher contract – the most recent expired Sept. 1 – may be a factor in failing to attract educators.

CEA endorsements are expcted by the end of September, Oluwole said.

“The School Committee is obviously an incredibly important body that sets the direction of policy for our schools,” said Dan Monahan, the labor organization’s president, to the group. “We need to have the best people on School Committee that we possibly can.”

Candidate biographies, platforms, contact information, and videos are available at the Cambridge Civic website run by long time civic chronicler Robert Winters, who is running for city council this year.