Committee Debates City Schools

The mayor of Cambridge and the superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools clashed at yesterday’s school committee meeting over its evaluation of student achievement based on graduation rate.

Recently elected Mayor E. Denise Simmons criticized Superintendent Thomas D. Fowler-Finn’s budget presentation for its measures of success that she said “set the benchmark too low.”

Fowler-Finn had compared the 59 percent statewide four-year graduation rate for black males to a 91 percent rate for the same demographic in Cambridge Public Schools. His budget presentation cited this data as indicative of progress in the “continuing goal” of narrowing the achievement gap.

“I am wary about using graduation rates. It’s too soft in terms of concrete data,” Simmons said during the budget roundtable discussion. “We need to be able to track the students.”

Simmons similarly criticized the tendency of the committee to laud the rate of students passing the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) without looking at the proportionately low number of students who receive high proficiency scores.

“We should celebrate, but I think using the state standard and looking at passing as opposed to advanced level makes us guilty of low aim,” she said.

The meeting yielded a high Cantabrigian turnout—with more than three times as many citizens in attendance than usual—due to the agenda’s 2008-2009 school year budget presentation. In addition to school officials and the general public, principals of Cambridge Public Schools were also present to answer questions.

The proposed budget is a 2.36 percent increase from last year’s budget with a large proportion of additional funds allocated to personnel-related costs. However, resolving the budgetary gap between the projected proposal expenditures and revenues is expected to result in approximately 2.8 million dollars in cuts, including administrative restructuring.

“These are the most difficult budget circumstances faced in many, many years in Cambridge,” said Fowler-Finn at the beginning of his budget presentation.

But he emphasized that classroom size will not increase as a result of budgetary changes.

Fowler-Finn also remarked that the proposal will offer grants of 5,000 dollars to elementary school principals who develop their own curricula, adding that they should still keep the state standards as a “guiding force.” He later said that a majority of the principals have yet to express interest in applying for these grants.

Committee member Luc D. Schuster said he was pleased with the cooperative committee approach to the budget. “In my first school committee budget meeting, individual school committee members read their wish lists,” he said. “This seems like a much more collaborative process.”

—Staff writer Vidya B. Viswanathan can be reached at viswanat@fas.harvard.edu.