The Cambridge School Committee is expected to announce the city’s next school superintendent in the coming days, ending the months-long search process that began last spring when current Jeffrey Young, who has served in that role since 2009, announced that he would step down at the end of this school year. The School Committee has already narrowed down the pool of 42 applicants, assembled through a nationwide search, to two finalists. Dr. Sergio M. Paez is a consultant to the Holyoke Public Schools, where he formerly served as superintendent; Dr. Kenneth N. Salim is currently superintendent of the Weymouth Public Schools. Both educators have long and distinguished careers in public education.
It is clear that both candidates are well qualified for the post. The experiences of the candidates speak for themselves; both have had exposure to running a school district and are intimately familiar with the peculiarities of public K-12 education in the Commonwealth. Furthermore, Drs. Paez and Salim both effectively conveyed their ideas for Cambridge’s schools through a town hall forum and interviews with the search committee earlier this month.
Either Dr. Paez or Dr. Salim would make a promising choice for the highest post in the Cambridge Public School District; however, whichever of the two candidates is chosen will need to confront a series of significant challenges facing the city’s K-12 schools, including issues with the budget and the lagging performance of minority students.
Most salient is the Cambridge education system’s budget. The budget for the 2016 fiscal year projects $164 million in expenditures, a near five percent increase that exceeds average annual growth. Already known for paying its teachers high salaries, the city also plans to raise the salaries and benefits portion of its budget by 5.5 percent. The need for financial accountability is even more pressing given the city’s sizable renovation plans. Cambridge is in the process of converting eleven K-8 grade schools into eleven K-5 schools and four middle, or upper, schools. Renovations of the The Martin Luther King Jr. School, on Putnam Ave., the first component of the city’s plans, are expected to cost $127 million by itself; for the next three years, the city will be carrying over $200 million in tax-supported debt to sustain that project and the work planned for King Open School. These costs will only continue to rise as the renovations progress; the next superintendent must ensure that they do not rise too high.
Another issue is the need to correct the racial and socioeconomic disparities pervading Cambridge’s school system. In the 2015 MCAS standardized assessment of Massachusetts public school students, just ten percent of Cambridge African-American students were “advanced” for their grade level in the English language arts, compared to 37 percent and 34 percent among white and Asian students, respectively. African-American students also lagged behind in the Mathematics and Science and Technology/Engineering MCAS exams. These are numbers that are consistent across grade levels throughout Cambridge, and while they reflect troubling state-wide trends, the next Cambridge Superintendent should prioritize addressing them.
The next superintendent of Cambridge will have his work cut out for him. Between growing expenditures and widening educational disparities, Cambridge’s schools need strong leadership. As the leader of the city’s public schools, the next superintendent must be prepared to take on these issues—the importance of his role cannot be overstated.