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In a smokey room on the second floor of Rindge Technical High School, a battle is being waged that has consumed the interest of the City of Cambridge, and, if a Harvard Dean has his way, will eventually concern the state legislature.
Judson T. Shaplin '42; Associate Dean of the School of Education, and a colleague, Mrs. George W. Ogden, Jr., are fighting the five other members of the city's School Committee in their efforts to appoint and promote 17 teachers to vacant or newly-created posts in the school system. Shaplin claims that the appointments were made illegally, without the advice of the Superintendent of Schools, without merit examinations, and without considering the teachers' qualifications.
These appointments, which earned for the majority of the Committee the enmity of many civic-minded citizens, were made at a special meeting on last December 11 called ostensibly to consider the budget. The Superintendent of Schools, John M. Tobin, was ill on that evening and could not attend the session, as he is legally required to do. Acting as chairman of the Committee, Mayor Edward J. Sullivan seized upon this opportunity to move for suspension of the rules, which require the examination of merit qualifications and the approval of the Superintendent of Schools. The opposition of Shaplin and Mrs. Ogden was ignored.
Mayor Sullivan, who at that time enjoyed considerable popularity in the city, began the notorious meeting by placing a nomination for assistant superintendent of schools. Shaplin and Mrs. Ogden countered with two nominations of their own in an effort to demonstrate the calibre of men who would be appointed if the regular rules were followed. These nominations, Shaplin admits, were a "maneuver," and he and Mrs. Ogden were summarily outvoted. After each of the 17 nominations, however. Shaplin read into the minutes: "I have raised an objection that the election of any officers of the School Department is not legal this evening in the absence of the Superintendent of Schools and without the recommendation of the Superintendent of Schools."
The Committee thundered on, filling previously existing vacancies and those which were created by the evening's nominations. The Mayor then moved the creation of new positions of junior hockey coach, Director of Public Relations for Athletics, and a second Assistant Director of Athletics, all of which, Shaplin claimed, were "strictly unnecessary."
Shaplin points out that the Committee had never discussed whether it wanted junior athletics, or competitive sports below the high school level, although the majority had tacitly approved the policy by appointing junior hockey coaches. It is true that sub-masters, responsible for playground supervision and vague paper work, had formerly been employed by the Committee, but even these had been dropped several years ago. Sub-masters were considered necessary 50 years ago when the school enrollment far exceeded its present size, and were accordingly discontinued when the number of students decreased. Now the principals need secretaries to attend to increased paperwork, and even assistant superintendents are not really necessary, according to Shaplin. The City of Newton, for instance, has a population of 15,000 and employs only one assistant, while Cambridge has a smaller population of 10,000 and employs two assistants.
Although such considerations did not bother the majority of the committee, large segments of the population were disturbed at what they considered purely political appointments. Letters of protest poured into the Committee office from parents, from Parent-Teacher Associations, and even from teachers' and masters' associations. Sample letters read: "We disapprove... of this open, callous disregard of the best interests of our school children;" "You are destroying the confidence of parents, teachers, children, and masters;" "You have broken a sacred trust placed in you by citizens."
A letter was distributed to children at the Peabody School as part of a monthly PTA newsletter urging parents to attend the next meeting of the School Committee, and reviewing the events of the December 11 meeting. The letter was duly approved for distribution by the principal of the school, who now faces definite disciplinary action and possible removal from office as a result of his allowing the letter to be circulated. On December 18, at a committee meeting hearing of the appointments, Mayor Sullivan queried all parents who spoke on their knowledge of the Peabody letter, and as one parent later expressed the general feeling, "They're making a big, mysterious deal of this because they have no other leg to stand on."
It was at the same meeting that Sullivan made deep inroads on his popularity in the city. The number of people attending was so great that the committee had to move from its regular meeting room into the Rindge Auditorium, which seats 1,500 and was three-quarters filled by disapproving parents. The audience gave an ovation to the first protesting speaker, upon which the Mayor angrily banged his gravel and threatened to clear the auditorium. Later, when the regular meeting had begun, Shaplin and Mrs. Ogden attempted to forestall consideration of the budget, which included salaries for the new appointees. Repeatedly the two raised points of order, challenged rulings of the chair, and insisted on roll calls. At one point, the Mayor, losing his composure, yelled "I'm gonna run this meeting the way I want to," while the audience smiled at him, remained in their seats and booed and hissed some more. By this time, Sullivan furiously demanded that the auditorium be cleared, but the audience refused to move.
While the Committee did not forget this unpleasantness on the part of Cambridge parents, it was soon given a great deal more unpleasantness. Five civic organizations formed a "Citizens Committee Against Political School Appointments," which decided to circulate a petition for a city-wide referendum asking repeal of the appointments. At the same time, a group of taxpayers secured a temporary injunction against the Committee, which forbade it to notify the appointees or to appropriate any funds toward their salaries. The injunction is still in force and will be until a trial is held to determine whether the injunction should be permanent. The injunction had an ill-affect on two schools, since two appointments were for hockey coaches for high schools which had games the next weekend. Mayor Sullivan and his brother, John, however, opportunely stepped in and agreed to act as coaches. The two were smilingly pictured in Boston papers as they awkwardly fondled hockey sticks, although it was considered a good omen by the opposition that the Sullivan Brothers lost their games.
While committee members were playing political hockey, 800 Cambridge parents were trudging through the snow gathering signatures for the referendum. The petition-carriers encountered little opposition; as one woman said, "People really were waiting to sign." The petition required 6,600 signatures, and, when the circulation time was up, the group found they had gathered over 13,000, of which 11,023 were ruled valid by the elections committee.
At first, the City Clerk refused to accept the petitions, claiming that they were improperly bound, but the petitioners secured the aid of the Cambridge Printing Office, in the basement of City Hall. The binding party was crashed by Sullivan, however, who criticized the printers for aiding the petitioners. While there, Sullivan charged that some of the signatures were forged, an accusation which he made at the next two meetings of the Committee.
After the petition was officially presented to the Committee, the group was legally required either to revoke the appointments or to give the document to the City Council "immediately." The majority, however, claimed that "immediately" could mean 30 days, and it was voted by the usual 5-2 majority to lay the matter on the table.
Then last Tuesday, the Committee executed a sharp legal maneuver which some observers feel may have weakened the effect of the pending law suit and the proposed referendum. The majority ordered the Superintendent to present the qualifications and recommendations of the 17 appointments, an order with which the Superintendent complied by stating the appointees' educational history and dates of appointment to the school system. He claimed that he had no recommendations, and Shaplin denied that the facts given could be considered real qualifications. The majority viewed the matter differently, and, in the opinion of some, may have complied with the technicalities of the law.
$3,000 for Janitors
Another member of the majority, Anthony Galluccio, mourned the fact that "the reputation of the School Committee has been hurt pretty bad--more than if we had sat down here and made 1,700 political appointments." The Committee did more than mourn, however; it served notice to the PTA's that it would no longer support the organization as it had in the past. In late November, for example, the Committee had apropriated $3,000 for janitorial expenses incurred by PTA meetings after school hours. Shaplin challenged the legality of this, and the Committee finally agreed to ask the opinion of the City Solicitor, who ruled that the appropriation was illegal. It is felt that the majority was prepared to oppose the solicitor before the parents opened fire on the Committee. Now the attitude of the majority is, "We wouldn't want to do anything illegal."
The Committee also refused at its January 17 meeting to grant a request from the Cambridge Council of PTA's to use the M.E. Fitzgerald School for its regular meeting. Instead, Sullivan referred the request to the Committee of Buildings and Grounds, whose chairman is pro-appointments committeeman James F. Fitzgerald. Shaplin, realizing that Fitzgerald would never call a meeting before the PTA's scheduled event, moved that any available school be used if the preferred one was inconvenient. Fitzgerald complained that this move was a "subterfuge," to which the more experienced Mayor calmly replied, "We'll vote it down." After the majority had done so, Fitzgerald turned with a triumphant smile to Shaplin and Mrs. Ogden and sneered, "You fakers."
The greatest vocal adversary of the PTA and the other opposition groups is the voluble Fitzgerald. The Committee-man alternately adopts a tone of righteous innocence or angry impoliteness, with the latter being more frequent. He at one meeting called Shaplin a "big bum," and has persistently complained that the Dean has "impugned all our motives." On another occasion, Fitzgerald had CRIMSON photographers ejected from a committee meeting. He insists that, examinations or not, Cambridge residents should be given preference for teaching positions. With just as much rigor, he opposes the merit system, claiming that it is the "greatest fraud ever perpetrated on the people of Cambridge."
The present situation is, however, not so much the result of the actions of committee members, as the result of weak sections in the General Laws of Massachusetts which give school committees almost autonomous control over their systems. State law asserts that the school committee "shall make all reasonable rules and regulations consistent with the law for the management of the public schools of the city;.... it shall have general charge of all public schools; ... the committee may supervise and control all athletic... organizations of public school pupils... and may determine under what conditions the same may compete with similar organizations in other schools." As a member of the White House Committee on Education has said, the Massachusetts school system comes "as close to home rule as any place." A committee-man expressed the same idea, when he asserted that"The School Committee has been given by the state full authority to run the school system."
In Massachusetts, the committee may set its own requirements for the certification of teachers, for example, while in New York certification requirements. as well as curriculum and athletic regulations, are clearly defined and regulated by the state.
There are two statutes in the General Laws of Massachusetts, however, which do somewhat confine the School Committee statutes upon which Shaplin is relying to obtain a permanent injunction against the appointments. Chapter 71, Section 38, of the General Laws reads: "it (the committee) shall elect and contract with the teachers of the public schools, shall require full and satisfactory evidence of their moral character, and shall ascertain their qualifications for teaching and their capacity for the government of schools." Section 59 of the same chapter also reads in part: A superintendent... shall be the executive officer of the committee... and shall recommend to the committee teachers, text books, and courses of study." While the Cambridge School Committee may suspend its own rules, it cannot suspend those of the state, and, it would seem, that by not considering qualifications or consulting the superintendent, it has violated state law.
Attitude of Courts
Even so, state courts are hesitant to take actions which might tend to weaken the power of local school committees, or to set themselves up as "super school committees." Shaplin is by no means certain that his group will win its case, but he has a strong conviction that the school committees have too much power. At present the Dean has begun a survey of school legislation in other states as the basis for making proposals to the General Court urging the strengthening of state control over the public school system. In any case, the present controversy will have served some useful function if it impresses upon Massachusetts the need for reform in the virtual autonomy of local school committees.
It is, however, especially unfortunate for the already weak Cambridge school system that the Committee has taken such actions. Even Mayor Sullivan, who admits that "I don't take a back seat to anyone as far as political moves," once declared his opposition to "using school children for political purposes." it is doubly misfortunate that the Committee has succeeded in doing just this
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