Friday, July 19, 2024

I hoped to give a public comment at Tuesday’s meeting of the Cambridge School Committee about the need for electronic tracking on special education buses. I had raised the issue at a meeting in March, the same month I filed a federal discrimination complaint. The agenda for the meeting indicated that the committee would vote on a new contract for NRT Bus, the vendor in question. Naturally, I wanted to read the proposed contract before the meeting to find out if it contained the provision I sought.

But the executive secretary of the committee informed me that it didn’t possess a copy of the proposed contract, worth as much as $40 million. She suggested that I file a public records request. The city, however, denied my request on the grounds that the contract was a matter of “ongoing policy deliberations.” Of course, that was why I wanted to read it in the first place. 


The committee, I went on to discover, not only doesn’t make available for public inspection the vendor contracts on which they vote; the committee doesn’t read them. Instead, they rely on private “memos” submitted by the superintendent. The committee spends the public’s money, in other words, while denying the public, and its own members, the opportunity to engage in substantive deliberation. After a contract is signed and it is too late for us to do anything about it, the committee’s chair gives us three minutes to complain.  

You might presume the subcommittees offer a mechanism for spade work in advance of the regular meetings. In each of the previous four years, to be sure, the special education subcommittee met at least three times by this point in the calendar. Member Richard Harding, the chair of the current special education subcommittee, took a stand at several regular meetings in favor of my proposal for the installation of electronic tracking on special education buses Harding’s righteous words rang in my ear and gave me hope. He phoned me to convey words of support and gratitude “for your advocacy.” I asked him several times to convene a subcommittee meeting to flesh out the stakes. Yet Harding has failed to convene the current special education subcommittee even once this term. Instead of doing the work, my best advocate came to the Tuesday meeting having learned nothing more than he knew when I first raised this issue in March.

The district’s chief operating officer, Dave Murphy, testified that the proposed NRT contract for the first time contained a provision for electronic tracking. Hooray! The provision, alas, would not kick in until September 2025. In the meantime, the district itself might install electronic tracking on NRT’s vehicles, and it might do so as early as this September. Yet Murphy entered a second caveat. He could not guarantee that the tracking system would work. In fact, he predicted, it probably wouldn’t work.

Harding and member Elizabeth Hudson balked. When the tracking system failed, Hudson insisted, the district should be able to offer frustrated parents like me “a single throat to choke.” (Hearing her phrase made the entire meeting worth attending.) Mayor E. Denise Simmons stepped in and admonished Hudson. The mayor proceeded to ramble on in a fruitless attempt to figure out whom parents should contact when the electronic tracking system that may or may not be installed this September – or maybe next September – inevitably failed. Superintendent Victoria Greer sat mute while the members batted around the question, all apparently forgetting that the district operates a transportation department.

The members bickered for a little while longer like this and then voted 4-2 to endorse the NRT contract. Harding and Hudson voted no. The others seemed happy to kick the can down the road and to get on with other, less confusing business. 

How you assess this folly probably depends on what you expect of our public officials. If you listen to them, as I do, constantly proclaiming their agony over the “crisis of democracy” in the bad, red states, you have to wonder why they have neither the talent nor the inclination to practice democracy in their own meetings. Democracy is hard. But even a minimally functioning technocracy requires competence. A dash of imagination helps, too. What I’ve seen in our School Committee is just incoherence. The members might occasionally have some vague notion of the issues they prefer, but collectively, they don’t know their purpose and don’t seem especially eager to find one. On this condition, the education of our children hangs.

John Summers, is a Fairmont Street, Cambridge, resident. His writing is archived at his personal website. This post appeared originally on New America.

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