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At their penultimate meeting of the year yesterday, Cambridge city councillors sparred over a proposal that could alter the balance of power between the council and the public school system.
Councillors used the sometimes-emotional debate to position themselves for the January mayoral election, and two members—Kenneth E. Reeves ’72 and Henrietta Davis—openly declared their candidacies.
The controversial proposal, authored by Councillor Anthony D. Galluccio, would have directed the city manager to examine whether it was legal for the City Council to pay for an outside audit of the School Department. Currently, Cambridge schools submit both to internal audits and to outside audits that the system pays for.
Galluccio’s order expressed a “lack of confidence” in the current system, stemming from, in part, a 1.2 percent surplus in last year’s schools budget that went initially undetected.
“I believe after 12 years that I’m entitled to ask a legal question,” said Galluccio. “I envision a time 10 to 15 years from now when the City Council may question the accuracy of those figures” provided by the School Department.
Councillors ultimately sealed the debate with a 5-4 vote to table the proposition. Unless a majority of the council votes to return to the issue at its Dec. 19 meeting, it will pass to the council’s next session, which begins in 2006, and it will be up to the membership of that council to decide whether to resurrect it.
Two members of the Cambridge School Committee denounced Galluccio’s proposal as invasive and unnecessary.
“The simple asking [for an outside audit] has cast aspersions” on the integrity of the School Committee’s financial data, said Benjamin R. Lummis, a lame-duck committee member who was ousted in November’s elections.
Nancy Walser, a member of the School Committee who was reelected in November, dragged four large file boxes with her as a prop to represent the amount of paperwork faced by school administrators in an audit.
Under Cambridge’s system of government, the School Committee—chaired by the mayor, who is also a city councillor—creates the budget for all public schools, which then goes before the City Council for approval.
Several councillors supported the general idea of school accountability before the City Council, while worrying that Galluccio’s audit proposal would encroach on the School Committee’s sovereignty.
The proposal “is not something we should be pushing at this time, if we intend to cooperate [with the School Committee] as we look toward various candidacies for mayor—including my own,” said Davis.
The mayor is elected internally by City Council members.
Councillor Brian P. Murphy ’86-’87 said that the proposal risked the “danger of recreating the wheel” by duplicating current auditing functions.
Responding to the criticism, Galluccio said he was “shocked at the level of defensiveness” in the remarks of Walser and others, and called the defensiveness “indicative of the lack of confidence in our school system.”
Although Cambridge spends around $6,000 more per pupil than most Massachusetts school systems, its public schools have recently experienced mixed success. In 2003, an accreditation group placed Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, the city’s only public high school, on probation, though it lifted that status earlier this year.
—BRENDAN R. LINN
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