Cambridge Civic Journal Forum

May 15, 2013

Letter from Councillor Leland Cheung – responding to Co-chairs of the Budget Subcommittee of the Cambridge School Committee

Filed under: Cambridge,City Council,School Committee — Tags: , , — Robert Winters @ 10:18 am

Sometimes fighting for the greater good requires a willingness to say no to good enough.

I ran for the City Council to make the City of Cambridge a better place to live and raise a family – not to be a rubber stamp. During my time in office, I’ve held developers’ feet to the fire to improve community benefits, I’ve pressed city departments via Council Orders to better respond to resident concerns, and I’ve voted no on the Information Technology budget to pressure the City Manager to invest more in digitally connecting residents to their government.

Throughout the City’s budget process, my colleagues and I expect a data-driven, outcomes focused, long-term plan for excellence from the City Manager. I believe that the same standards should also apply to the School Committee’s budget. On Thursday, I heard great questions by my colleagues that were ultimately left unanswered by the Superintendent of the Cambridge Public Schools, so I voted to hold the budget in committee instead of rubber stamping it and referring it to the regular Council meeting for adoption. This was not a vote against students, the schools, or the programs therein; this was not a ‘gotcha’ vote; this was a procedural vote in response to unanswered questions saying we’re not ready. There is plenty of time to resolve these issues and I fully believe that the budget will eventually pass the City Council, but I wanted to send a message that I believe the City of Cambridge can do more for its kids and that I expect a budgetary plan that is focused on achieving that.

The Council has been raising these questions for years. For almost a decade, Councillor Toomey has been pressing on the systemic inequities in the schools closest to his home. Councillor Kelley has repeatedly called for exit interviews to help us compete with charter schools and other districts. During the School Department budget discussion last year, I asked the administration to tell the Council and the community what it would take for the Cambridge Public School System to become best in class. I asked to see a plan based on considered trade-offs that helped the Council anticipate what the impact on the overall budget would be if we were to implement some of the ideas under discussion, like universal early education, an extended school day, an Office of College Success, increased professional development for teachers, computers for students, broader world language offerings, expanded wrap-around services, and so on.

The Council has committed to a building upgrade program that is expected to cost Cambridge taxpayers upwards of a quarter of a billion dollars and risks exceeding our debt limit guidelines. To make informed financial decisions, the Council needs a better long term budget plan from the school administration. To make sure taxpayer money is being well spent, the Council needs a plan that adequately addresses all the concerns my colleagues raised. At a cost of $151 million for 6,000 students, every graduate of the Cambridge Public Schools should have all the tools they need to succeed, thrive, and prosper in an increasingly competitive world. If that’s not possible in the current budget, we need to see a roadmap for what it would take.

Contrary to statements made by the Finance Chairs of the School Committee, this was not a political maneuver by a handful of Councillors. After I heard so many of my colleagues’ great questions receive unsatisfactory answers, I asked for a named up/down vote because I felt in my heart of hearts that this budget was not ready to pass on its merits. I was surprised by the outcome, but in retrospect the fact that only 3 of 9 Councillors voted to say that the budget was ready to move on to adoption demonstrates a heightened level of frustration and angst amongst the Council. It demonstrates that the Council thinks the school system is failing to achieve the outcomes that we know our community is capable of.

I hope that instead of focusing on feelings of personal insult or anger with the process that the Finance Chairs will interpret the vote as constructive criticism on the presented budget and a signal that the Council is ready to better invest in our students if there is a data-driven, outcomes focused, long-term plan for excellence that holds us all accountable. The single most important responsibility of our society is to invest in the education of the next generation. When it comes to our schools, there is no such thing as good enough.

Leland Cheung
City Councillor


  1. His last paragraph sums up my entire view on this back-and-forth. The idea for a straight-forward data driven plan is much more refreshing and innovative than the (admitted) “over promised and under delivered” system we are currently working with. We are spending so much money per student (because we have it) but we have to make sure we are spending it wisely. I think the Council’s vote forces us to really look at this.

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — May 15, 2013 @ 10:27 am

  2. I’d still like some explanation of why tomorrow’s meeting of the Finance Committee which was always listed as “if necessary” is not now considered necessary. It seems to me that this would have been the perfect time to continue this discussion and to try to find some resolution. Was it the decision of the Chair (Marjorie Decker) to not have this continued discussion because she is unhappy with the vote?

    I have my own misgivings about the operation of the Cambridge Schools and how much money is spent for less-than-spectacular results. I don’t know that the timing of this rejection (or holding up, whatever you want to call it) of the School Committee budget was the right way to handle this. There have been Roundtables between the City Council and School Committee. Were any of these misgivings expressed at those meetings?

    Maybe what we really need is a local “Convention on the Cambridge Public Schools” where everyone gets to express their grievances and suggestions. It’s pretty clear that the elections are a poor substitute. If we really had an open convention to hash it all out, I would love to have the opportunity (as a mathematics teacher) to say what I really think about some of the recent changes.

    Comment by Robert Winters — May 15, 2013 @ 10:56 am

  3. The “State of the Schools” Conference. I like it.

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — May 15, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  4. There will likely not be data driven corrections because the operations structure works against it.

    The fixed structure can be seen with our school crossing guards. One senior guard allegedly has difficulty walking, moving and communicating. Recently she fell to the ground when she was bumped.

    Parents have complained that there is an illusion of safety and that this situation is worse than having no guard. The combination of her alleged physical feebleness and this job is a danger to herself and to others. Complaints include that pedestians are not guided, and traffic flow is not controled.

    A few months ago one parent reported a big scare of her child almost being struck by a car as the elderly guard remained standing in place on the sidewalk.

    What parents learned is that there is no solution for this because the structure will prevent change until she retires.

    Parents of special needs children report of hiring lawyers and special advocates after they feel tricked and trapped. There are so many unhappy parents because the structure does not allow for inappropriate school staff actions to be corrected without inhuman efforts and lengthy struggles.

    I predict that any exit interview idea would not attract many takers because these are the parents who already long ago gave up having problems addressed. Why would they bother?


    Comment by JChase — May 15, 2013 @ 6:32 pm

  5. If the structure is so flawed, maybe it’s time to find people to challenge it.

    Comment by Joseph Aiello — May 15, 2013 @ 9:48 pm

  6. The fact that neither the School Committee, the City Council, nor its Finance Committee has scheduled another meeting on this matter speaks volumes. If there are so many questions that need to be asked and supposedly so much willingness to answer these questions, why is there no movement toward making this happen?

    Such diplomacy in the Peoples Republic….

    Comment by Robert Winters — May 16, 2013 @ 11:38 am

  7. “This was not a vote against students, the schools, or the programs therein; this was not a ‘gotcha’ vote; this was a procedural vote in response to unanswered questions saying we’re not ready. ”
    If this was not a ‘gotcha’ vote, why didn’t you propose the usual motion when there are questions remaining — a motion to adjourn? The time and place were already set (Friday’s tentative meeting). Seems to me you weren’t looking for answers to questions — you wanted to grandstand and it backfired.

    Comment by Joan Zahorjan — May 16, 2013 @ 2:00 pm

  8. Robert,
    I would love to hear what you “really think about some of the recent changes.”

    Emily Dexter

    Comment by Emily Dexter — June 2, 2013 @ 11:40 pm

  9. I honestly don’t yet know enough about how the implementation of the “Innovation Agenda” has worked out to make an informed comment. I’ve heard indirectly from parents about difficulties, but I’ve learned over the years to always take the reactions of “interested parties” with a pinch of salt. I was in favor of the hybrid middle school structure when it was proposed largely because of the promise that with each middle school grade having a size of 80-90 students per school there would be opportunities to offer classes that might otherwise not be possible. My interest is primarily in the mathematics classes.

    Unfortunately, the School Superintendent and School Committee decided that “leveling” of classes was not to be permitted – even if the teaching staff came to the conclusion that this might be the best way to carry out mathematics instruction. I did not object to the middle schools initially trying out “differentiated instruction” to see whether this could accommode the needs of all students. I did, however, assume that if packing students of all mathematical aptitude in a common classroom didn’t work out (and I believe this would be likely), then the teaching staff would have enough flexibility to restructure the classes to permit students to have the opportunities they need and want for their mathematics classes. I’ll let other people comment on other subject areas.

    When the School Committee voted (after the Innovation Agenda was approved) to forbid any flexibility in the mathematics instruction, I felt this was a classic “bait and switch.” I’m eager to hear from students (and to a lesser degree from parents) how the first year has actually worked out regarding mathematics. I am very much in favor of elevating the expectations of all students, but I want some guarantee that the relatively small core of exceptional mathematics students is given an opportunity to excel above and beyond the minimal expectations.

    Comment by Robert Winters — June 3, 2013 @ 8:40 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress

%d bloggers like this: