Monday, July 22, 2024

Cambridge School Committee member Richard Harding reacts to public comment Tuesday. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The Cambridge School Committee dodged a self-imposed deadline Tuesday to evaluate embattled superintendent Victoria Greer, but paused long enough in passing a $268.3 million budget to call the president of the Cambridge Education Association a liar and slanderer.

The budget now goes to the City Council, leaving out the higher pay hoped for by district paraprofessionals represented by the CEA. Pleas for a living wage from the teachers’ aides and their allies took up the first hour-plus of the meeting, but committee members told them to look instead to ongoing contract negotiations.

As to Greer: “The committee and the superintendent have jointly decided to hold the normative evaluation in abeyance while they exchange necessary documents pertinent to the evaluation. We expect to provide more information in the coming days,” said a statement read by Mayor E. Denise Simmons.

This is a delay upon a delay: The committee put off a scheduled evaluation of Greer on March 19, opting to move it to the same night as the budget vote with the explanation that three new members needed time to better assess Greer’s work. The deferral also managed to push the evaluation past Sunday’s default renewal date for one of Greer’s controversial hires, principal Kathleen Smith of the Graham & Parks School, and allowed time for a closed-door session Monday of strategizing “in preparation for contract negotiations with nonunion personnel.”

This is presumably about Greer, based on committee members’ explanations in March. Her contract runs through June 30, 2025, and she must be told by the committee on or before June 30 whether it wishes her to stay or go.

Committee members Tuesday declined to comment on the record.

Parents at G&P say they have been unable to find out whether their principal is staying, with the district telling them it “does not comment on personnel matters.” A spokesperson gave the same answer Tuesday to a media inquiry; Greer repeated the line late Tuesday after the committee meeting.

Smith has been under investigation since February by the district through an outside law firm after an outcry by some parents about her running of the school – and after they discovered on their own that a similar investigation in Smith’s former district, Newton, found that she had created a “toxic work environment.”

“The review is ongoing,” said Sujata Wycoff, spokesperson for the Cambridge district, in a Tuesday email.

A 2022 evaluation of Greer deemed her “proficient,” while the 2023 evaluation by the committee downgraded that to “needs improvement.” Results released recently from surveys taken Nov. 27 to Dec. 15 showed well-being among district educators, administrators and staff under Greer as dragging along the bottom ranks of school districts nationwide. At G&P, all surveyed topics among teachers and staff such as belonging, well-being and school climate were in the lowest quintile, with feedback and coaching the lowest at a 16 percent favorable rating. The question “Overall, how positive is the working environment at your school?” drew a 14 percent favorable response.

Public comment

Some of the public speakers and audience at Tuesday’s meeting of Cambridge’s School Committee. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Low pay for paraprofessionals has been a topic at public comment for the past several weeks, and at this meeting nearly 30 people spoke on it during public comment led off by CEA president Dan Monahan.

“I strongly urge you to vote no on the budget and immediately ask the City Council and city manager for additional funds specifically to address compensation for all contracts currently under negotiation,” Monahan told committee members. He referred to education support professionals being “critical to the operation of our schools and underpaid, particularly in this high-cost-of-living region. A $268 million school budget is significant, however the city can afford more. The budget must recognize and appreciate the critical contributions these folks make to our schools.”

With $26,000 as starting pay for paraprofessionals, Monahan and several speakers said it was clear why there were long-empty positions and difficulty keeping people in the district – including that the money isn’t enough to allow the paraprofessionals to live in the area and required them to take on second and even third jobs.

Student committee member Jeanne Alailima, a high school senior, said Tuesday that she’d discovered at her part-time job that one of her co-workers is a Cambridge Public Schools paraprofessional.

Some of the spicier public comment compared full-time paraprofessionals’ pay with the $48,000 the School Committee members make for their part-time work. Parent Andrea Eichman drew audience murmurs worthy of a daytime talk show with her challenge to the body: “Look for a study that shows that a chief strategy officer brings the same value as paraprofessionals do to the classroom as you consider this budget, because you greenlit that the last time.”

In another controversial hiring by Greer, a 25-year-old lacking the qualifications in a CPS job listing was hired as the superintendent’s chief strategy adviser at a salary between $153,329 and $169,193.

Pointing to negotiations

The committee was urged by speakers to vote no on the budget and ask the City Council for at least an 11 percent increase in the district’s overall allocation to parallel the coming 30 minutes’ increase in the length of the school day – but Greer and committee members said that increase was already factored into the budget, one of the largest in recent years that accounted for long but recently settled teacher contract negotiations.

“I do hear the cries of our paraprofessionals. We are in active negotiations and understand the needs, understand the challenges and will continue to bargain in good faith with our paras to give you a living wage,” Greer said. “But the budget that is before us is the budget that really accounts for all the various needs that we have within the school department.”

Committee members agreed the budget process couldn’t get the paraprofessionals their living wage, but underway contract negotiations would – and that an eventual contract agreement would be reflected in a future budget.

Lies and slander

Member Richard Harding went further on the importance of negotiations.

“A union president who should be working with us should have articulated that to his membership. I don’t think it does any of us well to create a climate where it seems like it’s us against them,” Harding said. “We actually are in favor of trying to do our best in the best way we know how to get you money. And Dan Monahan knows that. Let’s just be crystal clear, this is not a secret – he knows exactly what he’s doing: exploiting the situation.”

“It’s not fair for the president of the union to knowingly – knowingly, let’s be clear, knowingly – disrupt the negotiations,” Harding said. “We’re no longer going to sit back and allow you to trash us in the streets, when you know damn well we want to make this work for you.”

“I’m not going to sit back and allow the lies to continue, to allow the slander to continue. It’s not going to happen on my watch,” Harding said.

His remarks were applauded – figuratively – by Simmons and vice chair Caroline Hunter.

After the vote, Monahan said he’d predicted the response and knew the chances were “extremely low” that the committee would vote down the budget – but could have. “They could have voted it down. They vote, right?” he said. “So is this a democratic process or not?”

Final votes

Cambridge Education Association Dan Monahan at the committee’s March 19 meeting, when member José Luis Rojas Villarreal attended remotely. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Harding led a late amendment to the budget to add three full-time safety employees at the high school to be deployed as needed by the superintendent and district’s chief operating officer. The amendment was approved by all members except José Luis Villarreal, who said it could have been brought forward earlier for a more thorough discussion than was possible just before a vote.

Among the committee, only a “shocked” Alailima and fellow student nonvoting member Naseem Anjaria said they agreed with the public comment. “We love to talk about equity in Cambridge,” Anjaria said. “We all witnessed the yearlong teacher negotiation that took place. I genuinely don’t understand why that wasn’t a warning that we don’t want to be repeated. I saw the effect it had on teachers and the effect that it had on my class and effect that had on my learning. We are a district that should learn from our mistakes.”

The budget was passed in five votes, with member Elizabeth Hudson the sole “no” vote in the salaries, wages and benefits and travel and training budgets and a “yes” vote with the others on maintenance and extraordinary expenses. She was also a vote against on the total, which passed 6-1.

“This budget is largely last year’s budget” and the process lacked specifics and measurements, Hudson said. “If we don’t see anything different in our budget, then how do we expect to get different results?”