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As municipal elections go, school committee races tend to take a second seat to higher profile City Hall races--fewer people run, fewer people vote and who's going to win is usually pretty predictable.
But in Cambridge this year, who will walk away with a seat in the school committee election is anybody's guess. And as the city's finances tighten, the makeup of the committee will have a large impact on Cambridge's school committee-city council finance tensions.
An unusually large field of candidates for the school committee is finishing up last-minute stumping today in the hope of winning a seat.
With two popular incumbents choosing not to run for reelection and 12 candidates vying for the six spots, the vote promises to be a tight one.
"I think it's going to be a real scramble," said candidate Ronald S. Crichlow. "With only four incumbents running, it makes the race extremely interesting, to be sure."
Incumbents Alfred E. Vellucci and Fran Cooper's decisions to pass up running for reelection in order to run for Cambridge City Council and to retire, respectively, have left two holes on the committee that newcomers are scurrying to fill.
"It is very competitive for who will get those two open spots," said Cambridge Mayor Alice K. Wolf, who served on the school committee for eight years and currently holds the seventh seat because she is mayor. "I have no idea how it will turn out."
"Those two incumbents who aren't running again were the top two votegetters last time," said James J. Rafferty, a candidate and two-term committee member. "Between them, there were some 7000 number one votes. That's what led to a high number of candidates this time around, because it creates opportunities."
And there is no guarantee that the four other incumbents will necessarily be reelected.
"My greatest concern is my constituents who will take my reelection for granted and give their number one votes to other candidates," said candidate and three-term committee member Larry A. Weinstein. "I'm not a shoo-in."
Several of the non-incumbent candidates--Henry J. Lukas, David P. Maher and E. Denise Simmons--have run for public office in Cambridge before, so they have name recognition from other races working in their favor.
Wolf said she had noticed that the three were "clearly all running very strong races."
And those candidates without a natural base of support from past races have been working extremely hard to build up a solid voting block, Wolf said.
In one of the closest races ever for a school committee seat, Maher lost the last election to Rafferty by 11 voted out of about 28,000, Maher said.
"Having lost by 11 votes, I'm not taking anything for granted," Maher said. "We've worked very hard,"
Cambridge's proportional representation system of voting is another factor which traditionally leads to a tight race, said Albert H. Giroux, the spokesperson for the school department.
The system, which is unique among the elections in the Unites States, allows voters to cast their ballots for as many candidates as they want, by assigning their first choice their number one vote, then the next number two vote, and do on.
Such a method allows minority voters to be represented on the school committee and often leads to closer races than other voting methods, Wolf said.
Both Wolf and Giroux named the school budget as the chief issue dominating this years's committee election.
Several candidates said that while they oppose cutting funds to the classroom, much can be done to chop administrative costs within the system.
"In the top level of administration, three people's salaries rose by 20 percent in the last 18 months, and that's ridiculous," Maher said. "In times when surrounding town's school budgets are being ravaged, they're still giving away big increases. That's an awful lot of waste."
But others said that because of Cambridge's fortunate financial position relative to neighboring towns, budget cuts will not be necessary.
"Cambridge is the wealthiest city out of 350 cities and towns in the Commonwealth," said candidate Albert B. Fantini, who has served on the committee for 10 years and is currently the senior member. "I don't anticipate wholesale budget cuts because out city is well-off. I think times will be tough, but we can manage reasonably well."
How to improve Cambridge's "controlled choice" program is another important issue for the candidates. The program, which has been held up as a national model for school reform, allows students to pick which of the system's 13 elementary school they would like to attend. Cambridge has only one high school.
"The school choice program in Cambridge works well," Fanini said. "However, on the down side, we spend over a million dollars a year in busing kids throughout the city... Any program that pays out millions of dollars for busing which is not actually educational will have to be addressed eventually."
"Certainly choice is most desirable, but whether or not we have real choice in Cambridge is perhaps another question," said candidate Ronald S. Crichlow. "I think the Cambridge choice program needs to be reviewed, so we don't just have integrated schools with segregated magnet enrichment programs."
Wolf said maintaining the diversity of Cambridge's academic programs, making decisions concerning teacher and administrator appointments, and eliminating sexist and racist texts from the curriculum are other key issues in tomorrow's election.
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