School Committee elections never generate much excitement, a strange contrast to the committee's meetings--where accusations fly in an atmosphere that has been described by members as "a nice little circus" and "a crazy zoo." Members generally divide into two warring factions, the liberals against the independents and the mayor, who serves ex-officio as a seventh member, often deciding the outcome. Politics get in the way of decision-making, as both sides accuse the others of opposing an idea merely because their side did not think of it first.
Campaigns go that way too. This year the two sides are clearly divided on the basic issue, with independent challengers trying to walk a line between the two camps by talking about how it's time for both sides to work together.
But with only ten candidates running for six spots, the incumbents are campaigning hard for number one votes, and the challengers have a good chance of ousting someone and breaking the three-three liberal-conservative deadlock. The most vulnerable incumbent seems to be independent James F. Fitzgerald, an arch-conservative who has been on the School Committee for most of the last 46 years.
The issues in this election basically center around the past performances of the various candidates and some vague promises for the future. Cutting expenditures and saving tax dollars is a favorite concern of most of the Independents. Incumbents Fitzgerald and Donald Fantini and challengers David P. Kennedy and Nicholas R. Ragno all base their campaigns on this issue--citing, in particular, high administrative salaries with further raises proposed. Falling enrollments fuel their arguments against the Convention slate, which has supported costly construction projects and designed several new administrative positions.
Convention members say the construction at the newly reorganized high school was necessary to avoid loss of accredidation for continuing programs in substandard facilities. Also, they point out that Massachusetts will now reimburse Cambridge for some of the costs of construction and operation of the facilities. The Convention blames the Independents for just as many costly programs, so the argument turns to whose programs are the most necessary.
Personnel is a sore point between the two groups. Last September the Independents led the passage of a residency requirement for Cambridge teachers. Residency is not a prerequisite for job application under the law, but hired teachers must move into the district within a year.
Convention members say the Independents treat residency as a hiring requirement anyway, and the liberals consider the law a tactic for promoting the patronage system that allows friends of committee members to get jobs in the school system no matter what their qualifications. To cut down on possible patronage, Convention members pushed for the creation of the position of personnel director to standardize hiring practices.
The personnel argument centers around William C. Lannon, superintendent of Cambridge schools. The Cambridge Convention, as well as most of the community, backs the policies he has followed since his appointment in 1975, but he is a source of irritation to the other incumbents. A few weeks ago the Convention rammed through Lannon's contract extension several months before the old contract expires. The issue of his contract is now moot, but both sides are still talking about it.
The rest of the election revolves around less concrete promises and charges. Convention people want more community involvement with the schools and more attention to the quality of education. Independents say they are the ones who stand for quality education. The problem is that the sides do not agree on what quality is or how to achieve it.
Among the three groups, the candidates differ only slightly from each other. The Cambridge Convention has endorsed four candidates, an ideal affirmative action slate that includes the only two women and the only black in the school committee selection. Three of the slate members have graduated from or are now studying at Harvard. Glenn Koocher '71 sees himself as more pragmatic than the two women on the Convention slate. His leadership was crucial in the decision to combine Rindge Technical High with Cambridge High and Latin, producing a modern program in which students concentrate in one of five areas of study.
Alice K. Wolf and Sara Mae Berman are particularly concerned with equal opportunity for all subgroups of students. Wolf, who is currently studying at the Kennedy School of Government, finished first in the 1975 Committee election. Berman, a former record-holder in the Boston marathon, is working especially hard to improve women's athletics in the schools.
Charles M. Pierce 75, the black candidate and the only challenger on the slate, was on the committee between 1971 and 1975. After 17 years of industrial employment, Pierce went to the Harvard Extension School for an A.B. in education. His pet program while on the School Committee was occupational education.
'Fitzgerald, Fantini and Joseph Maynard are the Independent incumbents. Maynard is campaigning on his record which is pretty much the same as the other Independent incumbents, and he will not comment further to reporters. Fantini has had six years total experience on the committee and finished second in the election two years ago.
The challenging Independents, David J. Holway, Kennedy and Ragno, are hesitant about committing themselves to one side or the other. They say they are perplexed by the residency requirement and cautious about Superintendent Lannon. Holway and Kennedy have taken revitalization of neighborhood schools, especially the elementary school, as their personal causes. Kennedy and Ragno are first-time candidates while Holway finished a strong seventh two years ago and poses the greatest threat to the incumbents.
Convention members say they have hopes that if elected, Holway and Kennedy will take the liberal side more often than not, but the candidates want to preserve their options and try to work with everyone. Whether or not any challenger can bridge the gap between the two factions is questionable. Koocher says his experience as an Independent pushed him into the Convention camp quickly. If anyone manages to remain neutral, he will be quite an exception to the rule of Cambridge politics.