Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Cambridge School Committee members at a Monday swearing-in meeting include, from left, incumbents Rachel Weinstein and David Weinstein (no relation) and newcomers Elizabeth Hudson and Richard Harding. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After a year of controversy over math standards and educator contract negotiations, the new School Committee term got off to a sweetly quiet start Monday with songs, speeches and family.

While the two new members of the six-person committee were on hand for their swearing-in – Richard Harding, who served seven terms ending in 2017 and took a six-year break, and newcomer Elizabeth Hudson – two incumbents were missing: Neither Caroline Hunter nor Jose Luis Rojas Villarreal could make it to the afternoon event in the King Open School auditorium.

Nor were those members expected to be present for Tuesday’s regular meeting, said E. Denise Simmons, who earlier in the day in was elected mayor, and thus leader of the School Committee.

That left a question for the members present of whether to wait to elect a vice chair from within their numbers. The members agreed to wait, probably deferring a vote until a Jan. 16 meeting when the full committee could be together. A formal vote on waiting would be held Tuesday, Simmons said.

Along with Harding and Hudson, the swearing-in ceremony included oaths of office for returning committee members David Weinstein and Rachel Weinstein (no relation). Each member brought family to the dais while oaths were delivered by city clerk Diane LeBlanc and official documents signed with deputy city clerk Paula Crane.

“Let’s enjoy this afternoon and we’ll pick it up tomorrow night’s meeting,” said Simmons, who did not have formal remarks prepared for the low-key event.

Songs and speeches

The 45-minute special meeting included an invocation by pastor Jeremy Battle, of the Western Avenue Baptist Church; the national anthem was sung resoundingly by Gita Drummond; and when Ashmita Prajapati faltered during parts of “Lift Every Voice and Sing“ – the black national anthem – members of the audience and officials onstage were there to carry her.

Only during remarks by state Sen. Pat Jehlen did things feel weighty, as she spoke on increasing demands on school boards.

“Thanks to virtual meetings, it’s a lot easier to watch and speak up and get organized – as you may have noticed – and thanks to social media and email, it is so easy to tell us what you think. School committee members and other electeds have a much harder job for those reasons than I ever did when I was on the School Committee. So many people can share their opinions so frequently, and they expect you to respond,” said Jehlen, who served in Somerville for 16 years before running for state office. “Often they don’t agree, and that’s really hard. So I want to thank you all are choosing this road, because I know how hard it is.”

During her 1976-1991 tenure on a school board, “we sometimes complained about the lack of parent and community involvement, and almost no one showed up for budget hearings,” Jehlen said. “That has not been a problem recently.”

Cambridge successes

Despite it being a “challenging time” to serve, she felt the past four years of Covid-era education had supplied important lessons. “We learned that educators are among the most essential workers, both in helping new generations grow up and in helping our economy stay alive,” Jehlen said. “Another thing that many parents learned during the pandemic was how hard teaching is, either by watching educators online or by trying to teach their own children.”

She noted the new school contract that added time to Cambridge’s atypically short school days and gave educators raises: “They’re going to make a difference.”

At a time districts statewide struggle with how to attract educators of color, Cambridge’s collaboration with Lesley University to help paraprofessionals earn master’s degrees without tuition “was really important,” Jehlen said. “This is an important model in attracting and gaining educators of color, but also offering them an opportunity for economic mobility.”

Superintendent Victoria Greer was also not present at the inaugural meeting, but the audience included state Rep. Steve Owens and city councillors Sumbul Siddiqui and Ayesha Wilson. Siddiqui was mayor before Simmons; Wilson served on the committee until Monday, when she was sworn in to the council.

Only a handful of voters attended the public – and publicized – inaugural meeting, which was followed by a catered meal with sandwiches, desserts and finger food such as crab cakes, mini quiches and bacon-wrapped scallops.