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City Picks Superintendent

Veteran of urban schools will bring new style to post

C. ALEXANDER Guth

Acting Cambridge school superintendent CAROLYN TURK watches over a school board meeting yesterday to pick her replacement.

The Cambridge School Committee last night tapped a veteran superintendent who improved minority student performance and turned around a fiscally strapped urban district to be the next chief of Cambridge schools.

Committee members voted unanimously to appoint Thomas Fowler-Finn, who currently runs the public schools in Fort Wayne, Ind., pledging he will cause a “big culture shock” because of his authoritative style and bring “renewed confidence” in a district plagued by division and dispute.

In a press conference in Indiana shortly after the committee’s announcement, Fowler-Finn said he had accepted the offer subject to further contract negotiations.

Fowler-Finn, who is credited with reducing the gap between minority and white student achievement in Fort Wayne by 30 to 40 percent, said he could apply his experience to similar issues in Cambridge.

“The problems of public education are the same across the country—student achievement and closing the achievement gap,” he said. “I think I can make a huge difference in the lives of those students.”

If his contract goes through, Fowler-Finn will take up the superintendent job in August—coming to a district with a high school in turmoil and where the previous superintendent of schools, Bobbie J. D’Alessandro, was fired over the way she managed elementary school consolidation.

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Committee members said Fowler-Finn had amassed an impressive record in more than a decade of school administration, creating lines of accountability within his district, laying out a clear direction for the system and respecting the independence of school principals.

And with Cambridge and many other urban districts in the country facing continued declines in enrollment, committee members said they were impressed that the student body in Fort Wayne had actually increased during his tenure.

Fowler-Finn would “attract students back to our doors and our classrooms,” said committee member Nancy Walser.

Widely considered the frontrunner ever since the committee interviewed three finalists two weeks ago, Fowler-Finn drove a tough bargain in negotiations with Cambridge Mayor Michael A. Sullivan, who spoke to him on the telephone last night from a classroom in Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS).

Fowler-Finn presented a draft contract to several members of the school committee who visited Fort Wayne last Friday, laying out a more demanding contract than the template Cambridge officials had suggested.

Committee member Alfred B. Fantini said Fowler-Finn proved a “tough negotiator” and asked for both “financial and non-financial” provisions, including assurances that working relations between the superintendent and school committee would be smoothed out. Near the end of D’Alessandro’s tenure, the committee began rejecting her proposals for school mergers and complained she had not adequately communicated with them.

In several hours of closed-door meetings to discuss specifics of the contract last night, the committee discussed details such as the cost of moving to Cambridge and aligning the legal language from Indiana to Massachusetts law, according to committee member Richard Harding Jr.

For several hours, committee members who took a break from the session would only shake their heads and shrug their shoulders. In the meantime, Sullivan left with the school district’s lawyer to conduct several telephone conversations.

“The contract was not going to resolve itself in 10 to 15 minutes,” Sullivan said.

By the time the announcement was made around midnight, only a handful of people remained to hear the verdict. But the mayor, who also chairs the school committee, said the ultimate decision conformed to the views of many Cambridge residents who had provided input into the selection.

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