Cambridge council pushes back on early ed task force appointments

Originally published Feb. 14, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

Despite urging from multiple councilors to create a more diverse group, the Cambridge City Council voted 8-0 on Monday, Feb. 10, to approve a task force for early childhood education that is heavily dominated by city employees. Councilor Denise Simmons voted “present,” meaning she did not vote for or against the task force.

Charged with implementing a public education program for the city’s four-year-olds, the task force is comprised of 15 members appointed by the city manager. Three-quarters of the members, 12 out of 15, are on the city’s payroll, which several councilors said leaves parents and early childcare providers without a seat at the table.

“It does seem a little unbalanced,” said Cambridge Public Schools parent Emily Dexter. “Almost everyone works for the city, and it just seems like it might be good to have some outside participation.”

Dexter’s comments were backed by councilors Marc McGovern, Nadeem Mazen, Simmons, Leland Cheung, and Vice Mayor Dennis Benzan. Benzan urged the manager to include early childcare providers in the group. Others asked for parent participation.

“There’s a difference between reaching out and talking to someone and having them at every meeting with a seat at the table,” McGovern said.

Simmons suggested the council not accept the task force and instead ask the manager to redraft the committee list. But her request never gained traction on the floor. At one point during the meeting, Simmons and City Manager Richard Rossi got into a back-and-forth, with Rossi saying that adding more members to the task force would make it too unwieldy to get anything done.

“I don’t want to end up with a task force of 35 members. We’d never be able to hold a meeting,” Rossi said. “You’ll have to trust that the spirit of what we’re trying to do will be inclusive.”

“I need more than the spirit,” Simmons said. “I hear and respect what you’re saying and you need to hear and respect what I’m saying. I believe that people feel respected and that their opinion is included when they’re asked from the beginning. … I respectfully ask that as you look at the committee, you make some alterations so that just regular parents get to participate.”

The members of the Task Force include: Richard C. Rossi, City Manager; Jeffrey Young, Superintendent of Schools; Donna Cabral, Director Somerville Cambridge Head Start Program; Louis DePasquale, Assistant City Manager, Finance; Katy Donovan, Director, Peabody Terrace Children’s Center; Lei-Anne Ellis, Human Services Division Head for ChildCare and Family Support Services; Jeana Franconi, City Budget Director; Lori Likis, Chief Planning Officer, School Department MaryAnn MacDonald, Assistant Superintendent for Elementary Education; Lisa Peterson, Deputy City Manager; Megan Postal, Project Coordinator, Early Years Project, Guidance Center/Riverside; Ellen Semonoff, Assistant City Manager, Human Services; Claire Spinner, Chief Financial Officer, School Department; Nancy Tauber, Executive Director, Kids’ Council; and Carolyn Turk, Deputy Superintendent of Schools.

City councilors and School Committee members have long rallied around the idea of offering public school education to the city’s 4-year-olds. In 2010, Mayor David Maher appointed then-City Councilor Marjorie Decker and then-School Committee member McGovern to co-chair the Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education, which relied on the expertise of roughly 15 early childcare and education providers, specialists and community members.

The committee was tasked with imagining what steps might be needed to implement a pre-kindergarten program for all students in Cambridge. Currently, Cambridge students born on or before March 30 are eligible for pre-K education, while those born the day after are not. The commission issued a report in October 2011.

Two years later, in September 2013, the council and School Committee held a roundtable discussion on the topic, and the request to form a task force to study implementation of a pre-K program in Cambridge was one of the outcomes.

At the time, Superintendent Jeff Young cautioned against starting any broad new initiative since the district is already grappling with a multi-million dollar, multi-decade build-out of four new middle schools.

“I’m much more interested in doing a smaller number of things well than many things half as well,” Young said at the Sept. 23 roundtable.

At the end of the discussion Monday, Rossi said he would reconsider the make-up of the committee, but the council accepted the assignments as he prescribed them.

“Tomorrow will be task force day,” Rossi said. “We’ll get it right.”

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