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Olesen's Farewell

Brass Tacks

By Richard R. Edmonds

"The wonderful thing about Cambridge voters is that they're so intelligent," Barbara Ackermann said to Frank Duehay '55 as they left the City vote count at Long-fellow School Thursday.

Both had reason to be happy. Mrs. Ackermann, running for the City Council for the first time, had finished third, ahead of seven incumbents. And Duehay, assistant dean of the Ed School, led the pack of 18 candidates for the School Committee with 3966 votes. Equally important, two of his fellow candidates also endorsed by the Cambridge Civic Association were running second and fifth and looked like sure winners.

Duehay's sensationally strong showing and the almost certain election of two more CCA endorsed candidates are good omens for the City's schools. If a CCA endorsed Councilor like Edward Crane is named Mayor (and thus Chairman of the School Committee as well), the CCA members will constitute for the first time a majority of the seven man Committee. At least, the CCA will retain its three-man minority which was immensely effective during the last two years.

Some observers view School Committee affairs as a morality play in which the CCA members are the good guys and the Independents, the forces of evil. Last year's "Stokeley affair" was a good instance of this polarization. The Independents voted not to let the Harvard-Radcliffe Young Democrats use the City's Rindge Tech auditorium for a speech by Stokely Carmichael. All three CCA members defended Carmichael's right of free speech and forced two votes on the issue, both of which they lost. The votes fell the same way in a bitter battle last winter over 13 budget cuts, which Duehay claimed were plotted out secretly by the Independents.

The sense of drama is heightened by the atmosphere of School Committee meetings. Every month or two there's a flurry of excitement when a surprise move (like the budget cuts) catches some of the members off guard. But most of the time one senses that the final vote has already been decided, and each Committeeman is merely taking his turn to get a few choice words into the record. Often, what passes for School Committee debate is more like a show than a real exercise in decision making.

But this view isn't entirely correct. On every major question during the last year, the CCA members have voted together. But the Independents are hardly as united. They often split among themselves, and these divisions add some excitement to School Committee politics.

Committeeman John A.P. Good is the key to the rupture of the Independents. He is a pleasant, balding, soft-voiced man, who occasionally offers candy to the press and seems a caricature of the smooth and successful local politician. But since he joined the Committee last January he has been under repeated attack from Duehay, first for allegedly making a political deal and now for "cronyism." His clumsy machinations have even alienated one of his fellow Independents. Last Thursday's vote count showed Good a shaky sixth and his election is still not certain.

Good savs that he was once offered CCA endorsement but decided to turn it down. He lost no time enraging CCA members, particularly Duehay, by voting in February for the budget cuts. Duehay issued a blistering statement on the "irregularities" of the cuts. He also implied that they were part of a deal by which Mavor Haves could keep the school budget below $7.5 million and one of the three Committeemen--presumably Good--would get to name the third Assistant Superintendent of Schools, a new administrative position created at the same meeting.

In April Good tried to overturn the School Superintendent John M. Tobin's recommendation for a new head of Cambridge's home economics department. When it was discovered that Good's candidate for the job was his cousin, Duehay opened fire; the Superintendent's candidate got the job, and Good's prestige plummeted.

Last month, it looked as though the "deal" Duehay had hinted at was about to be completed. Good nominated a local administrator for the third assistant superintendent post--though the job hadn't yet been advertised and the Committee had received no applications. Duehay fired another fusilade at Good. But more important than Duehay's statement was James Fitzgerald's decision to vote against Good. "I have the deciding vote here," Fitzgerald, a crusty veteran of 20 years in School Committee politics, said with obvious relish at the October 17 meeting. Then he twisted the knife by referring to "a confidence and trust in that person that may have been misplaced."

So Good's motion was defeated by a 4-3 vote and he lost more than just the appointment. Now, even if he is elected, he will be at odds with Duehay, the CCA's strongest vote-getter and Fitzgerald, the most powerful Independent.

It's not surprising that appointments were the issue in Good's misadventures, since they are the central battle-ground for old-style City politics in the School Committee. Cambridge chooses teachers by examination, intermediate administrators by examining committees and the Superintendent's recommendations, and top administrators by procedures the School Committee establishes for itself. Bringing competent new blood into the system is more essential--and thus more difficult--in the higher reaches of the hierarchy. Traditionalists like Fitzgerald resist outsiders and outside help like Harvard. Calling in the experts implies disloyalty to the Cambridge system for them. Duehay is willing to risk looking like an interfering academic, to insist that Cambridge go after the best men available for the jobs that fall open and new jobs that are created. And he is willing to stage political theatrics to block proposed appointments like Good's.

Yet not all the progress or all the problems of the City's schools are linked to this political arena. The vote this October was unanimous for instance to establish "community schools" in Cambridge--a program which will open City school buildings to extensive use by social service groups. The significant move was engineered by a committee of parents who documented the needs exhaustively and persuaded the Committee to act.

The political tensions of the School Committee aren't about to disappear. They are built into Cambridge and the City's proportional representation voting system. PR means simply that your vote counts for only one man, and conversely that each Committeeman owes his election to a specific constituency, and must be very sensitive to that group if he wants to be reelected.

The implications of the system were lucidly reflected last month by the peculiar turnabout of Committeeman George F. Olesen. Olesen decided last spring that he wouldn't run for reelection, and the Committee is losing its most colorful though hardly its most progressive members. Olesen is a tall, slightly stooped young man, who roams around the Committee room during meetings, whispering messages into his fellow Independent's ears, always appearing to be lining up the votes for some obscure maneuver. He cross-examines witnesses with the pugnacious gusto of a TV lawyer, and has attacked Mrs. Ackermann with such virulence that Mayor Hayes has sometimes interrupted to ask for a return to the question at hand.

Much of Olesen's fire was reserved for Harvard and M.I.T. He dredged up an article last spring that called his neighborhood "a model area for slum renewal," and read the whole thing to the Committee. He attacked the Model Cities program as "Another attempt by the Universities to act as God and take over these areas." "I'm just one voice, a poor guy from the corner drugstore," he said, "but I have to fight this thing."

The most lively School Committee issue this fall was again one of appointments. Superintendent Tobin retires this June and the Committee must hire his successor. The issue was whether the Committee would settle automatically on one of Tobin's able assistants or go after qualified candidates outside Cambridge.

Olesen dropped a bomb in October with a motion that a three-man Committee of Ed School deans from Universities in the area be put in charge of screening candidates. The three stunned CCA members voted for the motion and it passed, despite angry protests from Fitzgerald and Hayes. Olesen listened to their attacks slumped in his chair with his head in his hands and his eyes closed. "I'm not a candidate for the School Committee," he said revealingly, defending the motion; "tonight I speak as a parent and my only interest is the best education for my children."

Olesen's dramatic farewell underlined the disparity between what is right and what is politic for the School Committee, and underlined the significance of last Tuesday's election--that traditional disparity may be disappearing. Fitzgerald's tally has fallen sharply from the 1965 election. Duehay and the other CCA candidates have picked up support. This means that any swing in the new Committee will be toward progress and increased tolerance for "outsiders" like Harvard and the help they can give the City's schools.

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