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Parents Protest School Merger Plan

By Claire A. Pasternack, Crimson Staff Writer

With only one week left until a Cambridge School Committee vote to close two elementary schools and move five others, a dedicated group of nearly 100 parents protested at the committee’s meeting last night.

Most of the protesters have children at the Peabody School, which is slated to move into the closing Fitzgerald School’s building and absorb that school’s students this fall.

The plan—which follows a series of more than a half-dozen other school consolidation proposals released since last spring—comes in response to declining enrollment in the city’s elementary schools and a budget deficit of $3.8 million. A budget plan unveiled at last night’s meeting showed that closing and merging schools would save nearly $1.5 million.

Though many parents and city officials initially voiced strong opposition to the previous plans, the combination of the looming threat of budget cuts, aggravation after 10 months of discussion and a recent change in district leadership has muted the negative response.

And several committee members have said they will vote to adopt it.

But the plan has sparked increasing ire from Peabody School parents over the past two weeks.

About 40 of them protested yesterday morning in front of the Thorndike Street offices of the Cambridge Public Schools, and then returned later last night to speak directly to the committee. They have also planned what they hope will be a city-wide rally Sunday.

At last night’s meeting, some parents turned to more creative tactics—quoting Robert Frost and Alice in Wonderland, refusing to stop speaking when their time limits expired and reading names of dozens of parents who signed a petition against the proposal.

Parents said moving the school, which is one of the highest-performing schools in the city, would threaten the Peabody’s community without providing any educational benefits.

“How do you intend to use this community to improve academic standards when you intend to break us down?” said Peabody parent Serenella Sferza. “What can the Peabody so cherry-picked bring to the plan? Not very much I fear.”

“Moving and merging is like performing an organ transplant,” said Peabody parent Elena Saporta. “There’s always a risk of rejection. There’s always a chance the patient may never recover.”

Peabody parents vehemently criticized the lack of clear communication between officials and parents as merger plans were put on the table. They also accused the committee of reneging on its December decision not to close schools this fall.

“I wonder if you’ve become some sort of a cult, the followers of the cult of the plan,” said Peabody parent John Rutter. “This plan is musical chairs. The music stops and the Peabody School sits down somewhere. This is not a community effort. It’s more like ‘shut up and now get the hell out of the building.’”

Parents implored the committee to heed their protests.

“You should be terribly alarmed by the opposition from these parents,” said Peabody parent Patricia Nolan. “The opposition to the new plan is no less vehement and is broader than before.”

Some parents said they were “exploring legal angles” and threatened to retaliate in the voting booth.

“There must be a political price paid by all those who put nails in the Cambridge Public Schools coffin,” said Graham and Parks parent Jim Iffland.

Some parents also threatened to remove their children from the city’s schools if the committee votes to adopt the plan.

“This plan will be an impetus for parents to go outside the system for their children’s education,” Nolan said.

“People are going to second-mortgage their homes or beg and borrow to send their children to private schools,” said Peabody parent Alissa Du Bois.

But despite parental opposition, Peabody School Principal Ellen Varella said she would accept the plan if it were passed, though the merged school “is not going to be the Peabody School.”

“If the school committee decides that this is what we’re going to do, we’ll move ahead with it,” she said. “Change can be a rebirth as well—I think it will be.”

She acknowledged the potential benefits of the plan but said there is no perfect solution.

“Let’s just do it and move on,” she said. “We’re between a rock and a hard place.”

While at least two committee members have come out in support of the plan, other city officials said they listened to the protesters and would consider amendments to the plan.

Interim Superintendent of Schools Carolyn Turk said she would continue to meet with community members and principals this week and then consider changes to the plan.

“I’m really trying to be respectful and waiting this week because we haven’t heard from everyone,” she said.

But Turk said the amendments would not necessarily change the fate of the Peabody School.

“We are a district,” she said. “We need to think in terms of...what is beneficial for the district as a whole.”

—Staff writer Claire A. Pasternack can be reached at cpastern@fas.harvard.edu.

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