Friday, July 12, 2024

Maia McAleavey speaks at a Tuesday meeting of the School Committee. (Photo: Marc Levy)

After deferring an evaluation Tuesday that could have decided the fate of Victoria Greer, the school district superintendent, the Cambridge School Committee has set itself up for a dramatic turn from March to April.

The controversy that drew nearly 30 residents to speak against Greer at the meeting – the employment of Graham & Parks elementary school principal Kathleen Smith – will be decided by Greer on March 31, when Smith’s contract expires and may be renewed. The timing of an external investigation of Smith ordered by the district is unknown despite the looming deadline.

Two days later, April 2, the committee votes on a $268.3 million budget that remains roiled by the question of higher pay for classroom paraprofessionals. A hearing held as part of the meeting was filled with speakers saying the district is not paying a living wage.

The committee deferred Greer’s evaluation to the same day, April 2.

“We wouldn’t be here for long enough, so we decided to load it up,” member Elizabeth Hudson joked dryly after Tuesday’s three-and-a-half-hour meeting. “We can stay here all evening.”

School Committee member Elizabeth Hudson, right, speaks with a resident at Tuesday’s meeting. Dan Farbman, center, listens. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Member Caroline Hunter recalled a session in the 2000-2001 term that kept the committee in chambers from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., and she shuddered at the idea of beating the record.

Yet the committee agreed unanimously at the start of the meeting, before a house packed with speakers prepared to explain their disappointment and anger around Greer, to defer the evaluation. Mayor E. Denise Simmons made the motion without explanation, but she, Hudson and member Richard Harding explaining the thinking later: “We have three new members,” Simmons said, and with the committee just seated in January, they wanted more time to assess the work Greer has done. (Harding and Simmons have served on the committee in years past and have returned; this is Hudson’s first term.)

“There has to be sufficient time to have the right conversations,” Harding said. “Hopefully we can come even better prepared to speak to not only how we think we’ve done over the past nine months, but also how we think we can do better moving forward,” Hudson added, calling a referendum on Greer also a referendum on the district.

The members said they expected to hold a closed-door session to discuss “what we believe the future leadership needs to look like, needs to be like and what we can invest in moving forward for the kids,” Harding said.

Diminishing evaluations

The notice for that executive session could offer a clue if it’s truly for an evaluation, or negotiations of a departure for Greer.

Her tenure began as interim superintendent in July 2021, stepping in for Kenneth Salim when he stepped down two years before the end of his contract. Greer’s position was made permanent Feb. 2, 2022, backdated to Jan. 1. Her contact runs through June 30, 2025.

A 2022 evaluation of Greer deemed her “proficient,” while the 2023 evaluation by the committee aired some of the first official criticisms, ranking her overall performance as “needs improvement.”

Problematic hiring processes

There were more biting criticisms of Greer during public comment about “botched hiring practices” and a lack of transparency and community engagement, items that speakers noted were listed as areas of improvement from the previous evaluation – one that cited problematic hiring processes at the Fletcher Maynard Academy and the Morse School. That evaluation also worried that “buy-in from staff is lacking, and some feel mistreated. [There are] questions about the effectiveness of the superintendent’s management style in keeping, inspiring and working with the leadership team to improve our school system,” but survey results released recently showed well-being among district educators, administrators and staff under Greer as dragging along the bottom ranks of school districts nationwide.

Parents say that’s a problem at Graham & Parks too, in part because the principal’s past is repeating. The hiring of Smith had “major issues seemingly missed or inexplicably ignored by Dr. Greer, Dr. Madera and HR,” resident Laura Clawson said, referring to how a previous probe into a “toxic” work environment and legal settlement was uncovered by parents and not Greer, assistant superintendent for elementary education Michelle Madera or the district human resources department. The hiring was “rushed,” didn’t “include the community” and resulted in “a single candidate at the eleventh hour,” parents said.

An inhumane process

Cambridge Public Schools superintendent Victoria Greer, right, with a recent hire, Skyler Nash, left. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The audience was filled with angry G&P parents. Yet several of those spoke to the “inhumane” feel of the meeting – Cambridge Education Association president Dan Monahan agreed – with person after person rising to criticize the person sitting quietly at the far end of the room.

“This doesn’t feel like a humane process. And I feel a little bait-and-switch by the change in topic,” said Dan Farbman, referring to the committee’s vote to delay the evaluation. “I feel a little bit as if the caregivers are being asked to speak when the School Committee has chosen not to speak. And it’s a little hard.”

Still, he had criticisms. “We should be hiring the very best,” Farbman said. Instead, “the lack of community engagement, the lack of trust, the lack of a sort of transformative, real vision for what education should be in this district frankly, I think, reflects badly not only on the district but on the School Committee.”

Tense, sad and angry

Parent after parent spoke of feeling betrayed by the district’s lack of response to calls for help from within Graham & Parks and the messages that flowed from it that seemed to belittle their concerns. “They don’t want to hear from us. They want us to sit down and be quiet,” parent Becca Lester said. “People who are trying to make our school and our district better shouldn’t be shamed and silenced and accused of having selfish motives. I think we need new leadership at the district.”

Maia McAleavey, the president of the Friends of Graham & Parks, said the situation at the school was so tense that “even a cheerful joiner like me doesn’t really want to go to community events.”

“They’re not fun. It’s tense. It’s sad … people are really angry with each other, with the district, with primarily the principal. And it’s such an uncomfortable situation,” McAleavey said. “Dr. Greer had the power to make this difficult situation easier by engaging frankly with our community from the beginning. Instead of open discussion, caregivers have been met at every turn by top-down decrees and resistance to genuine dialogue.”

There was a single speaker in support of Greer. Tara Edelschick spoke online to say that with Greer’s focus on results, “I have never felt more confident with the superintendent at the helm.”