Thursday, July 18, 2024

Graham & Parks students enter the school in Cambridge’s Neighborhood 9 on Feb. 7. (Photo: Marc Levy)

At a school divided over leadership and direction, one of the most public affirmations of support for Graham & Parks principal Kathleen Smith is being called misleading, and it has emerged as an exemplar of the fear and conflict that have set in around the school.

Smith has been accused by some school parents of creating a toxic environment and reversing the school’s 50-year tradition of project-based curriculum since arrival at Graham & Parks in 2022. Smith left the Newton Public School district in 2019 after an internal investigation there found that she had created a “toxic work environment.”

In the run-up to Smith’s contract ending July 30 and a potential contract renewal by March 31, some parents urged an investigation of her practices, and the district said Feb. 7 that an “an impartial external review” of allegations against Smith is underway. Though a deadline implied by the automatic contract renewal is coming fast, district director of communications Sujata Wycoff on Thursday and Monday declined to offer an update. “The district has no further comment regarding the review” or on contractual matters related to personnel, she said.

Parents who do not trust district leadership have asked the School Committee to step in, and a group called the G&P Caregiver Coalition wrote to the committee March 4 to give further warning of “poor leadership” by Smith. They cited a $315,000 settlement in 2016 to a Newton teacher who complained of retaliation for a disability. Those documents have been reviewed by Cambridge Day.

“Smith’s abusive leadership practices risk not only driving away our beloved G&P teachers, but also exposing the district to expensive litigation,” the coalition wrote.

A petition expressing concern about Smith was signed by 130 parents, estimated to be about a third of the total at a school of 370 kids in grades K-5. Wycoff has called the group “small yet vocal,” while a public letter sent to Cambridge Day and posted Jan. 31 said “there is a large majority of teachers and parents who are supportive of the principal.”

The letter sent by school council co-chair Christian Henry suggested the school’s leadership was aligned with Smith, but the extent was put in doubt quickly, along with the letter’s legitimacy.

Who are the signers?

The Henry letter supported Smith as “our esteemed principal” and criticized “attempts to discredit Smith’s efforts” as scaring students. The original email from Henry to which the letter was attached identified it as being from “from the Graham & Parks School Council,” though the file was named “G&P Parent Representative Letter.” Cambridge Day confirmed that the Graham & Parks School Council webpage was live and its members were identifiable, and Henry was contacted by phone for further confirmation that the letter was legitimate. The letter was posted, signed by the “Graham & Parks School Council” as suggested.

Complaints and questions arrived quickly. On Feb.1, some school council members and other parents made clear that the generic signature was misleading – and that the council webpage readers would consult for more information was out of date. The letter was updated online by Cambridge Day with a change in signature, now showing it was from the school council parent representatives only.

Yet there were still problems: Not all parents identified as being council representatives supported the letter, and the outdated council webpage named people who were not involved.

Henry was contacted Feb. 6 by Cambridge Day with the concerns and a suggestion, considering the out-of-date webpage, to “just have the letter signed by people at G&P and say who they are (i.e., parent council member) rather than a label.” Henry was asked to help identify the signers.

While apologizing for the misunderstanding, Henry said by email the same day that “in the last few days, some school council parent representatives have received emails from people who they do not know that they perceive as threatening or bullying. The district is aware of those interactions and has replied to the senders – people in the school community – to stop with the tone.” He asked that the names of the parent representatives not be published “in your reporting for their own sense of well-being.”

The response from Cambridge Day was almost immediate that that would be fine so long as the school council website was updated.

Five days later, there had been no change to the website or word from Henry. On Feb. 11, the letter was updated by the Cambridge Day to clarify that “it is no longer clear that the letter came from anyone except Henry.”

“Volunteers” in an elected position

A school council includes representatives from among parents-guardians-caregivers; principal and staff; students; and the community. The size of a council can vary, but it must have “parity” – an equal numbers of parents-guardians-caregivers and principal and staff.

According to state law, the councils are municipal agencies, which means the educators and caregivers elected by their peers are considered public officials.

All current parent representatives on the council began their terms last fall, but not in an election. An Oct. 3 newsletter from the school’s family liaison, Lauren Morse, linked to “the five parents and caregivers who have volunteered” for their 2023-2024 position on the council. A link from the emailed newsletter brought readers to a Google document that said “this year, we have five candidates for five available spots, so everyone here will get in.”

Nominations for spots on the council are now beginning in April, with elections in May, as per handbook guidelines.

The person who submitted the letter, Henry, seems barred from being a member – but not according to the district administration.

According to the Cambridge Public School District’s school council handbook, parents representatives can serve consecutive two-year terms only twice. Council minutes show Henry has been on the council for five and a half years, exceeding term limits by a year and a half.

The explanation by Wycoff is that the latest School Council Handbook is the first to set term limits and “represents a reset for the election process.”

The handbook was adopted June 20, and Henry was accepted as a council “volunteer” more than three months later. By Wycoff’s explanation, instead of being a year and a half over his term limits, Henry could continue serving for at least another two years starting in the spring.

The previous council handbook from spring of 2022 had the same term limits, though. That version was introduced June 21, 2022, by superintendent Victoria Greer as “the first CPS School Council Handbook,” created by the Family Engagement Office in collaboration with a working group of caregivers and staff, and due for updates every couple of years with feedback from the community. The language identical from one version to the next.

A series of website changes

School councils are to be “representative advisory groups that collaborate in advising the principal in planning for and implementing a school’s improvement.” The school district’s council handbook holds that a main goal of the council is “transparency in engagement with the community.”

Parent critics say the school falls short on that standard, and it isn’t just Henry seeking anonymity for council members.

After going without updates potentially back to Dec. 5, 2022 – which meant the wrong members were identified when community members looked in February – the G&P school council website got an incomplete update: Looking on Feb. 15, one name was cut from the ranks of parent-caregiver members. The page was obviously wrong, as Raquel Furtado was still identified on the page as assistant principal despite being replaced by John Okie. He is an interim principal, but that interim status wasn’t identified in communications or on the school website until Monday, after the district was asked about the oversight by Cambridge Day.

On a version of the page found over the weekend, there is finally a full roster of names, including parent members, but Okie is left off and no assistant principal is identified as had been the norm.

For an extended time between those changes, the page had been left entirely blank except for a note that there was a “G&P school council email (coming soon).” That was a violation of laws outlined in the district handbook that “representatives’ contact information (school-sponsored email address at minimum) must be available on the school’s website, in printed materials about the School Council and on meeting reminders, as well as any other place where school council information is shared.”

Raymond Porch, the district’s director of family and community engagement, said in a Feb. 15 letter shared with Cambridge Day that the district was breaking with its own handbook approved less than nine months earlier by removing parent members email addresses: “Caregivers have expressed concerns about messaging they feel uncomfortable receiving in their personal emails. Given the challenges in email communications communicated to my office, we will NOT force folks to list their personal email addresses at this time,” Porch said. “Nor do we support making those members step down for not doing so.”

The website now gives school-sponsored email addresses for the parent members.

Climate of fear

Just as school council members were unidentified for a time out of fear, parents and caregivers who formed the G&P Caregiver Coalition are staying anonymous. Members of the group say they worry about personal retaliation from the school for speaking out publicly.

Over the past week, some parents pointed to a 5:30 p.m. Thursday council meeting as an example of why: The district has identified it as being held in part to go into a closed-door session to discuss “litigation strategy” about an Open Meeting Law complaint filed by a parent, Anna Shin.

Shin said she filed the complaint to get the council to post missing meeting minutes, providing access as required by state law.

Nine of 12 missing meeting minutes have been posted since she filed her complaints March 1 with the state, Shin said Friday, although the school and district have been doing it without notice to her and she knows only because “I’ve been hovering over the portal.”

The reasons for the closed-door session are unclear if the district is following the law. Members of the coalition (which does not include Shin) see the use of Shin’s name as an implied threat of a lawsuit against her.

“I’m not concerned about it,” Shin said, but she agreed it could be perceived as a “scare tactic.”

On Monday, Wycoff said that the district “is not seeking legal action against the parent” and that Shin was identified by name only as a formality in explaining the purpose of the closed-door session vote. That was interpreted as an effort to comply with the Open Meeting Law, which calls for a meeting to give “as much detail about the purpose of the executive session as possible without compromising the purpose for which it is called,” Wycoff said. “In this instance, the parent, as complainant, was identified.”

This post was updated March 13, 2024, to correct that Open Meeting Law requires access to meeting minutes, not that they be posted, though district bodies do post meeting minutes. It was updated March 15, 2024, to link to the spring 2022 version of the district’s school council handbook.