School Choice Vote Postponed

In a surprising turn of events last night punctuated by a shouting match, the Cambridge School Committee postponed a long-anticipated vote on using socioeconomic factors in school choice.

Although Cambridge community members debated the issue during the Public Comments section of the meeting, the School Committee did not discuss the plan.

Committee member Alice Turkel said she postponed the vote because fellow Committee member Susana Segat was absent from the meeting.

The Cambridge Public Schools Controlled Choice Plan, introduced to the School Committee on Nov. 30 by Superintendent of Schools Bobbie D’Alessandro, calls for the incorporation of socioeconomic status in assigning students to elementary schools. Socioeconomic status would be determined by a student’s eligibility for free and reduced-price meals.

Currently, the city assigns children to Cambridge elementary schools with the goal of creating racially balanced student bodies.

At 6 p.m. last night, several dozen Cambridge community members assembled at Cambridge Ringe and Latin School (CRLS) eagerly awaited the vote on the superintendent’s plan, which is widely supported in the community.

“I’ve had kids in the system for a long time. The inequities are really outrageous,” said parent Cheryl Kennedy.

After the Pledge of Allegiance, the forum opened to Public Comments.

Harvard Professor of Education and Social Policy Gary A. Orfield presented his research on socioeconomic factors in school choice, citing “clear and large benefits from diversity in schools.” He said poverty affects the level of preparation of students, health problems and competition in schools.

Teacher Jose Salgado, who said he grew up in poverty, spoke in support of the Controlled Choice plan.

“What does poverty look like? It’s when kids go home to no food, to no one to help them with homework, kids who are trying to succeed in school,” he said.

Others, including Representative and Councillor Timothy Toomey and parents Kennedy and Craig Kelly, also spoke in favor of Controlled Choice.

Cambridge resident Ellen Aaronson offered an opposing viewpoint, proposing that the committee “not invent a new system” and instead make schools more attractive by renovating them.

Student members of the Committee were also invited to speak.

Emma Lang, a junior at CRLS, said there is “desperately needed improvement in the school system.”

Just as the debate was to move to the School Committee, Turkel proposed postponing the vote until the Dec. 18 meeting.

The committee rules allow a postponement of the agenda when a member is absent if any one member proposes it.

Many audience members expressed their disappointment that the long-awaited vote would not take place.

After trying twice to suspend the rules in order to discuss the vote’s postponement, committee member Joseph Grassi, supported by colleague Alfred Fantini, shouted his disgust with the proceedings.

“This is not good government,” Fantini said. “You have seen in person this is not good government.”

After calls of “Order! Order!” and gavel banging, the session was called to recess.

Turkel’s motivations for postponing the vote were immediately questioned.

Members of the School Committee claimed that Turkel and the other Cambridge Civic Association-endorsed members of the Committee arranged for Segat to stay home in order to delay the vote.

This, some claimed, would allow Turkel to introduce and pass her amendments at the last minute, without sufficient debate. They said Turkel would then be able to pass a version of the Controlled Choice plan tailored to her own agenda.

“This is sleazeball politics,” said Grassi, calling the postponement a “crafty hidden plan.”

But according to Committee Member Nancy Walser, Segat was having a root canal.

Turkel said she postponed the vote because she wants to introduce a set of amendments to the plan, and feared she would not have the votes to pass it without Segat’s support.

Turkel’s amendments, introduced at a workshop open to the public, propose a gradual increase in the involvement of socioeconomic factors in school choice, and using gender and siblings as factors when assigning schools.

Some claimed that Turkel has not adequately explained her amendments in public so that she could keep them under wraps until the last minute.

Walser and Committee member Denise Simmons defended Turkel’s postponement of the vote.

In the past, Walser said, Mayor Anthony Galluccio has asked the committee to postpone voting until all members are present.

Simmons said Turkel’s action was “in deference to a colleague that was absent.”

“It’s not a vote we want to take lightly,” she said.

Many observers said they were outraged that no vote took place.

Julia E. Perez, Cambridge parent of four, said she observed “stalling tactics” that are not in the best interest of schoolchildren.

“My trust level is very low,” she said.

Perez said she strongly supports the superintendent’s plan, saying that currently “there is no equity” in the school system.

Proceeding with its meeting, the School Committee voted to apply to the state for funds to renovate the Fletcher-Maynard Academy and to extend legal services to the School Committee.