Bringing Calm to the Cambridge Schools
Small Field, Few Issues
Two years ago, if you wanted to see fireworks, you didn't have to wait until July 4. Most any school committee meeting would do.
The Cambridge School Committee has survived yet another two years of long meetings and personality clashes, but this time avoided bitter fights over desegregation, tight budgets, and even an AIDS policy. Despite occasionally drifting from its relatively peaceful course, the committee has been calm, members say, partly because of the careful search for the new superintendent and his subsequent "honeymoon" period.
And with Cambridge's voluntary desegregation program in place for four years, the school budget recovering from 1981's budget-cutting Proposition 2 1/2 and benefitting from greater funds, and controversial Glen S. Koocher '72 deciding not to run for a seventh term, the school committee race has been left with few gripping issues.
"We're down to the educational issues, the real things that make schools work," says Frances H. Cooper, the only incumbent candidate endorsed by the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), the liberal political organization.
Though some sticky problems exist in the school system, such as the teacher's union contract and the accommodation of ethnic and linguistic minorities, most of the talk has been of long-range planning and improving education programs.
"We've gotten to the point where there are no major issues," says Independent incumbent Alfred B. Fantini, who is seeking a third term. "Otherwise you would see more people running."
In fact, only nine candidates are seeking election to the seven-member school committee, which sets policy for the 8000-student Cambridge school system and established this year's $49 million school budget comprising almost 30 percent of all city expenditures. Six members will be elected on Tuesday while the mayor, selected by the city council in January, will hold the seventh seat.
Because the school committee race lacks the fireworks of issues like rent control in the city council race, each candidate has brought an individual agenda to his constituency. Ask the nine candidates what's the most important issue and you'll probably get as many different answers.
Sara O. Garcia, a Mexican-American and former school teacher who is now studying part-time at the Harvard School of Education, is trying to gain greater recognition for bilingual education. Garcia, who is endorsed by the CCA, has made that program the focus of her campaign, though she maintains she is not a single-issue candidate.
Drawing support partcularly from members of the Hispanic and Haitian communities, she is banking on votes from the 20 percent of Cambridge residents who live in non-English speaking households. But she will have trouble drawing votes from a demographic group that in the past has had a lower percentage registered and voting.
In addition, Garcia may not garner much of the Portuguese vote since many in that community have expressed anger over the recent appointment of an Hispanic administrator at a predominantly Portuguese elementary school, a move for which Portuguese residents feel the CCA was responsible.
Larry Weinstein, also CCA-endorsed, is running as a "parent activist," believing that parent involvement is crucial in improving the quality of education. He also stresses the need to increase teacher morale, saying, "teacher job satisfaction is at the heart of effective teaching."
But Weinstein, with two children in the Cambridge schools, is clearly appealing to parents. He wants to encourage parents to participate in school decisions and, in additon, favors a formal "parent's bill of rights."
The four Independent candidates, none of whom have children in the Cambridge schools, have emphasized budgetary issues more than the CCA slate, yet they all put forth distinct priorities.
Jane F. Sullivan, seeking re-election as the representative of homeowners and tax-payers, sees the renewal of the superintendent's contract in 1987 as the number one issue. Though CCA candidates have commended new Superintendent Robert S. Peterkin's performance, Sullivan believes that a CCA majority in the school committee may force the superintendent to leave.
Timothy J. Toomey, the only Independent challenger, has based his campaign on monetary concerns. He enjoys talking about a grant of computer equipment to Brookline's Montrose School from Spinnaker Software Corporation, a Cambridge-based company, as an example of how local universities and high-tech firms can help improve facilities in Cambridge schools.
Toomey, who does not feel he has a specific constituency, is likely to do well on the coattails of Alfred E. Vellucci, who is running for city council. Vellucci, a popular Independent from East Cambridge, may help Toomey, who is also from that neighborhood.
An advocate of the "average, middle-class," Alfred B. Fantini has been a moderate, bridging the conservative, neighborhood-oriented Independents and the more liberal CCA coalition. On parent evaluations of school staff, for example, the one issue that has most clearly separated the CCA and Independents, Fantini sees a great benefit in parental participation, particularly in the alternative programs. But he continues, "I think in some cases the evaluations have gotten out of hand."
David P. Kennedy is trying to make it to the school committee after three unsuccessful attempts in the past 10 years. For the first time this year, he is being endorsed by the CCA. The endorsement might be enough to put Kennedy in office since his views are more closely aligned with the CCA.
Kennedy is proud of the establishment of the Health and Environmental Task Force of the school committee, formed after more teachers called in sick because of poor air quality. Sullivan presented the motion for the task force to the school committee last year for political reasons, says Kennedy, after he had suggested the idea to the full committee.
Richard B. Griffin '51 and Frances H. Cooper are the other two CCA candidates trying to increase the CCA representation on the committee. Griffin, who is a gerontology consultant and was the Roman Catholic chaplain at Harvard from 1968 to 1975, sees the budget as a central issue. Cambridge's spending per student is one of the highest in the Commenwealth, and Griffin wants to find out why. Griffin has become more involved in the schools since his daughter entered first grade at the Agassiz school this year.
Cooper, though calling the Superintendent's job "above average", believes that Peterkin's "Key Results" plan must be more closely scrutinized. Peterkin offered his "Key Results" this summer as a guideline of long-range plans for the next three years. Cooper believes that budgetary and time limitations will force the committee to make decisions as to its priorities. She says that making long-range plans for the next 10 years is the committee's most important responsibility.
Joseph E. Maynard, who served on the school committee in the fifties with Sullivan's father, continues to avoid the press and simply states that he is running on his record. Maynard has held his seat since 1970 and served one term in the fifties and one term in sixties