Patronage Tries for a Comeback

Never has an election produced "code words" that so clearly define the issue. "Cambridge Jobs for Cambridge People" and "Citizen Participation." Read the former, "vote for me, I'll appoint my friends;" read the latter, "a process to plug up the patronage pipeline," How did we arrive at this crossroad?

By 1970, appointing relatives and friends of politicians to the Cambridge School system had become so routine that most people didn't realize it could happen any other way. Then a small group of disgusted parents and educators decided the time had come to organize for "reform" of Cambridge schools. It had to happen outside the system and it had to change the top of an entrenched, school/political bureaucracy.

The 1971 elections provided the slim "reform" majority who walked into office in January of 1972 with a detailed structure for hiring a professional educator/administrator for the Cambridge schools, which included getting citizens into the act.

Despite personal intimidation--rocks through windows of School Committeemen's homes, obscene 4 a.m. phone calls, both threatened and real physical violence O children of "reform" organizers and public intimidation trumped-up legal battles and marathon live TV coverage of the circus-like hearing preliminary to the vote to resume the search for a new superintendent--the majority persevered and finally brought Alflorence Cheatham to Cambridge.

The process by which Al Chatham came to Cambridge involved representatives of 125 citizen groups plus representatives of teachers, administrators and students serving on interviewing panels to quiz five final applicants for the job. Unlike the frantic petition drive for signatures to support incumbent Frank J. Frisoli, which was mislabeled "citizen participation," this process gave Cambridge citizens a choice.

It worked so well that the process has since been instituted in the selection of all new administrators. Geographically representative panels of Cambridge citizens, plus staff and students where appropriate, have selected three new assistant superintendents, three new curriculum directors and the new headmaster for Cambridge High and Latin.

This is the POWER that is the gut issue in this election: Power for a few self-serving politicians or power shared among the greater Cambridge community.

Now it's all up for grabs. Cheatham doesn't have tenure; the law providing local School Committees to put superintendents under contract doesn't take effect until next year.

The Independent (non -"reform") can dilates for School Committee are not campaigning against Cheatham. He's too popular. What is not generally understood is that while they may not fire him immediately, Cheatham will not be patsy for their patronage appointments or manipulation of his programs. He will cash in his chips because he is a professional and can walk out of 1700 Cambridge Street tomorrow into any one of the many top jobs across the nation.

Local politics bore you? Remember that spire Agnew began on a local school board in Maryland and that Watergate begin in small cities and towns across the nation. The "new political morality" that Agnew says defeated him, began in Cambridge in 1971 with the common Slate. It could end in 1973.

Mary Ellen Presser is a community and political organizer and activist for Cambridge school reform.