Debate Focuses On City Schools

In their only scheduled debate of the campaign, candidates for the Cambridge School Committee clashed last night on the fiscal management of the city’s schools, differing over whether the district overspends on administration and whether parents are getting enough bang for the buck.

Throughout the night, five incumbents and one ex-committee member answered questions before an audience of about 50 by speaking in detail about the school system’s strengths and weaknesses. Joining them were three new challengers who spoke primarily about how they would bring unique skills to the committee.

The clash over the district’s finances, which provided the sharpest exchanges of the night, divided the candidates in ways that mirror roll-call votes at school committee meetings.

In addressing how much of the system’s money reaches the classroom, committee member Joseph G. Grassi said that 82 percent of all funds are spent on instruction. And when asked whether the schools are making good use of their $23,000 in per pupil expenditures—more than double the state average—Grassi boasted that the district chooses to make free many programs that other districts do not, such as all-day kindergarten, busing, and sports.

But Patricia M. Nolan ’80, a longtime critic of the district’s finances, countered Grassi by citing data from the Mass. Department of Education that show that only 29 percent of the district’s dollars are spent in the classroom. She added that Grassi’s figure was inflated by money spent on school-based administrators like deans.

“We are a poster child for high spending and not high enough results,” Nolan said.

Moments later, Nolan’s ally, Luc D. Schuster, said he and Nolan had twice sponsored unsuccessful measures to put millions of dollars under the control of principals—money he suggested would be spent directly on students.

While Schuster continued to defend his resolution, veteran committee member Alfred B. Fantini, who drew chuckles from the audience for a forceful delivery that often bordered on shouting, criticized Schuster and Nolan’s proposal “nebulous” and lacking in specifics.

Hiring more assistant principals and deans, he claimed, is a good use of money because it has been shown to raise student achievement.

Apart from the debate over finances, there was little disagreement on most of the other major issues discussed throughout the night.

Most of the candidates said improving achievement in sixth through eighth grade was a key goal. And everyone agreed with the committee’s decision to temporarily alter the district’s method of assigning students to schools, which balances student bodies based on socioeconomic factors. The change was prompted by an influx of more middle class students this year.

There was slightly more debate regarding the quality of the school district’s “market survey.”

Nolan, Schuster, and former committee member Marc McGovern said the survey should have interviewed those who have never sent their kids to the public schools. But Grassi, Fantini, and committee member Richard Harding said they were more concerned with those in the district than with parents who had always opted for private education.

The other challengers in the race, newcomers Gail L. Wiggins, Stefan Malner, and Nancy Tauber, steered away from the debate’s flash points and instead focused on their own experiences.

Wiggins began nearly every answer by referencing her background in business and education, while Tauber frequently mentioned her years as a public school teacher in nearby Newton, Mass.

And Malner—who answered after Fantini and often appeared nonplussed by his bombastic speeches—acknowledged several times that he was not familiar with the issues being raised. Instead, he suggested his experience as a community activist was more valuable because it would enable him to collaborate with other members of the committee and the public.

Since disagreements were limited, one candidate suggested this November’s election was more about choosing candidates based on their leadership qualities than their positions on the issues.

“Ideologically we’re not all that different,” McGovern said in his closing remarks. “This is really a job interview and you have to determine who you want to hire.”

—Staff writer Paras D. Bhayani can be reached at pbhayani@fas.harvard.edu.