A Seasoned School Committee

As Cambridge School Committee election results roll in this morning, a mix of incumbents and seasoned newcomers stands ready to guide Cambridge through its heated educational challenges.

As of 11 p.m. last night, the preliminary results of the ballot count showed the winners, in descending order according to number of votes received, as Alice L. Turkel, E. Denise Simmons, Alfred Fantini, Joseph Grassi, Susana M. Segat and Nancy Walser.

These six, plus the Cambridge mayor elected in January, will make up the school committee for the next two years.


Michael Harshbarger came in seventh, some 300 votes behind Walser.

The members seem willing to collaborate as they grapple with issues like testing, school choice and student retention.

With the four incumbents retaining their seats, Fantini and Walser provided the evening's surprises.

However, they were hardly shocking. Fantini had logged 16 years on the school committee before losing in the last election.

Walser was one of a host of female candidates from affluent Cambridge neighborhoods, but when it comes to Cambridge schools, she wrote the book--literally.

She is the author of The Parent's Guide to Cambridge Schools, now in its third edition. For each edition, Walser spent time visiting every school in Cambridge, observing classrooms and interviewing administrators.

Walser, a first-time candidate, may have appealed especially to newcomers to Cambridge, with her experience and focus on revamping middle schools.

"My sense is that Nancy, having really done her homework, is someone who knows the value of good curriculum, and is not going to bend to the prevailing political winds," said Humphrey Morris '69, a Cambridge resident and parent.

Segat, Simmons, Turkel and Walser were endorsed by the Cambridge Civic Association (CCA), a progressive Cambridge political organization.

Though Fantini and Grassi were not endorsed by the CCA, both have solid support bases in Cambridge.

Grassi, a lifetime Cambridge resident and longtime denizen of East Cambridge, relied on the votes of his neighborhood--a group with traditional, "old Cambridge" values.

"If you look at Joe's ideal school, it's got a core curriculum where all children learn the same thing, and has a very set program for what everyone needs to learn," said Dick Brown, co-chair of Cambridge United for Education, a group dedicated to promoting excellence in the city's public schools.

Brown contrasted Grassi's approach with schools using more progressive educational styles, such as Cambridgeport or Graham and Parks.

Fantini's success is likely a combination of two factors. Outgoing committee member David Maher, who is hanging on the edge of getting a City Council seat, said much of his support had rolled over to Fantini. The two candidates appeal to the same working-class constituency, he said.

Also, Fantini renewed his campaigning efforts this year after pundits blamed his lackluster priming of the public in his 1997 loss.

"Whoever can get out there and shake the most hands, and kiss the most babies, wins," said Roger O'Sullivan, president of the Cambridge Teachers' Association.

And this morning, as the final tallies come in, Michael Harshbarger may be questioning his decision to run as an independent candidate and decline the CCA's endorsement.

"I think the race would have been a lot closer for Mike had he been on the slate," Ken Carson, CCA president, said last night. "A total of 40,000 pieces of literature were distributed with the CCA slate on it. That makes a difference in a close race."

The departure of committee member Robin Harris, a black woman endorsed by the CCA, likely siphoned votes into Simmons' camp--she, too, is a black woman endorsed by the CCA. It also helped other CCA-endorsed candidates.

Though Harris is black, she is not a resident of the less affluent and predominantly black Area 4, as Simmons proudly is.

"It's difficult to say whether there were two minority seats there, or whether Robin Harris's was a CCA seat," O'Sullivan said.

Two other black candidates, Donald Harding and Alvin E. Thompson, ran and lost--perhaps in part due to the changing demographics of Cambridge, which is gaining more white residents.

Despite these changes, the school district faces many of the same issues it has grappled with in recent years.

And though members bring individual perspectives to the table, their main goals will likely coalesce.

Most have listed closing the achievement gap, halting declining enrollments, reworking the budget and strengthening after-school programs among their top goals.

While budgets are a perpetually contentious issue for all school systems, district dollars have been especially controversial in Cambridge because many schools ask parents to contribute to the classroom coffers--and parents in some neighborhoods of Cambridge are better able to pay up than others.

One of Simmons' pet issues was a district-wide audit, finally passed during her last term.

Simmons has said her focus for the new term will be examining the audit's results and then focusing on reallocating funds toward closing the achievement gap.

Though they come from varying demographics, candidates across the board stand poised to attack this gap.

In a candidate forum last month, Walser cited sociological evidence to argue that the single best predictor of a child's academic success is the mother's level of education.

Turkel criticized the current system of parent aid to schools, under which schools request donations from parents, on the grounds that parents in some neighborhoods are far better equipped to pay up--a factor that only widens the rift.

Segat also said she would focus on reforming budget allocation.

Though she now lives in the affluent Agassiz neighborhood, she has said her parents, Argentinian immigrants who didn't speak much English, had little money when she was growing up.

Segat points to this background in explaining her support for after-school programs, attributing her academic and personal success to "caring teachers who were willing to stay after school and teach me."

But if the district does implement those programs, Segat will push to keep it simple.

She chastised the district for implementing "the Cadillac model" of after-school programs at one school, in the midst of stories of teachers paying out-of-pocket for classroom supplies and students taking home photocopies of textbooks.

"The focus of the budget should be the classroom," Segat said at a candidate forum last month.

As the repercussions of rent control's demise continue to threaten public school enrollments in Cambridge, fixing the city's school choice system to please the influx of wealthier parents may become paramount.

With Don Harding as the only candidate to speak out unequivocally against school choice, advocating instead a return to a simple neighborhood schooling system, it's not likely that the choice system will be departing altogether anytime soon, despite new residents' protests.

Another major issue is the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests, which Turkel calls "tremendously problematic." She suggests that instead of graduation hinging on a standardized test, students should be judged on a portfolio of work assembled by their teachers.

Though Fantini doesn't support the tests either, he maintains that their existence showcases significant problems with the job the school committee is doing.

"The way to put the MCAS out of business is to make sure we're doing our jobs," he says.

Though the school committee has little power to change state law, it can agitate within the community or make recommendations to the state government.

The public may have more say, too, as Walser has advocated making school committee meetings more accessible to the public. She has said shortening the meetings and publicizing topics beforehand will facilitate parent participation.

The final results will be announced today, but because the swing votes are expected to go to CCA candidates, Harshbarger has little chance of gaining a slot.

And of course, the final makeup of the committee will not be known until next year, as the mayor--chosen in January--is the seventh member of the school committee.

With four incumbents, former committee member and tenacious campaigner Fantini, and book author Walser, it seems for this year's school committee members, doing their homework paid off.

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