Fred Fantini

Photo Courtesy of: Fred Fantini

Fred Fantini

Register Forum: What do you think distinguishes you from the other eleven candidates?

Fred Fantini: I’m the School Committee person who likes to get things done, number one. And number two, I’m a full-time School Committee person, so I’ll give you an example, and it’s probably related to something. When I say I like to get things done, I think I’ve done a lot. And I don’t usually like to talk about things I’ve done, but it’s how I distinguish myself from others. So, I started, I was the founder of the media labs program, OK. So that was …  our media-arts facility, as you know, is a state of the art … studio where students learn all the skills associated with a TV studio and field production. A second thing that, and I’ll just mention two things and then I’ll talk about something else. A second thing is, I created, I was the founder of the City of Cambridge scholarship program. And so it’s a scholarship program that was founded in 2003. And fast forward to today, the scholarship program has issued well over a thousand scholarships for over 2.4 million dollars.

In general, I am somebody who likes to work hard, likes to, it’s a full-time job with me. And I like to get things done. I had the same impact on the visual performing arts program. The visual and performing arts have always been a high priority of mine. I started out, you know, many years ago providing free musical instruments for kids.  And fast forward to today: …I attend all of the musical performances at the high school and you know, I’ve been, during the budget I’ve made sure that the visual arts program is second to none in the state. There were seventy employees in that department, they have a significant budget. And it’s something that I think makes a difference for our kids, I mean you know just art and how it relates, and just brings out kids inner and sometimes hidden skills and strengths that I think are really important in having a really quality education. So that’s kind of the stuff, it’s…I spend many hours a week working at it.

 And being someone who’s been elected for eighteen terms, I mean Cambridge is very demanding of it’s elected officials. You don’t get eighteen terms because you’re not doing your job.

 RF: How do you think the School Committee could become more effective?

 FF: Over the thirty-six years on the committee, I’ve worked with some School Committees that were very effective and some that were not. This one is an interesting committee. There seems to be a bit of tension on the School Committee. The other way to be effective- it’s really important to me that a strong relationship between School Committees, superintendents, and the community- so when you can get those three things working, and by the community, I mean students, parents, and teachers. And so, you know, there’s the standard ways of working better together is by, you know, having retreats and you know you are able to talk about this stuff openly. . .. And in this year’s budget of the 59 positions that were created in this years budget, 33 of them were actually earmarked to support issues of equity which is, you know, really….so the outcomes of this committee . .. I think are pretty dramatic.

 RF: Speaking of equity, how are you aiming equity to close the achievement gap?

 FF:  Yeah, yeah, you now the achievement gap, it’s a persistent gap. You know I’ve been on the committee in 1993 when the education reform act was passed. And even with providing additional millions of dollars additional funding it hadn’t that much of an impact, it hadn’t created that much of a closure to it. So we’ve tried …. I think the superintendent’s strategy with a focused district improvement plan that allocates resources directly to support students is a good approach to take. And I think that will lead to success. Last year’s MCAS results were very positive and showed great improvement. . .  .

I was [also] on the committee that created three immersion programs. You know, the Spanish immersion program, the Chinese immersion program, and Portuguese immersion program. I was on the committee when we created the Montessori Tobin School. 

I was a big believer and supporter of the high school extension program. And so you now all these initiatives I think have helped. But you know we’ve still got to work harder to close that and I do think with this superintendent who is a person of color, who is a minority, who has experienced equity issues in his home country where he was born, is really committed to closing the achievement gap. This isn’t an excuse but the reality of it is that we have a six-hour day which is probably one of the shortest in Massachusetts and we weren’t able to, with the teacher’s union, we weren’t able to get a longer day. But I think with this superintendent we are going to make some improvements.

Photo Courtesy of Fred Fantini

RF: What do you see as one of the strengths of the Cambridge schools which you’d like to emphasize?

FF:  As I knock on seven thousand doors as of today, I hear great reports about the Cambridge public schools. I think people think … some people say to me, on the worst day, Cambridge Rindge and Latin is the best high school in America. On its worst day, they say …  Because of the 70 different nations that are represented at the high school, because of the diversity—the diversity is its strength. And every kid that graduates from Cambridge Rindge and Latin can travel anywhere in this world and never feel alone, never feel afraid because of the experiences they’ve had at Cambridge Rindge and Latin. I think our teachers are outstanding. And, you know, I suspect that if we sent a survey out to people who left Cambridge, twenty years after graduating, and said how are you doing and how did you like the experience at our schools, I think they would be very positive. One of our strengths is that we have significant funding to support students with special needs which I think is significant and important to me. And you know, little things go unnoticed. I was really instrumental in my early days on the committee working with the director, Bill Pace, the athletic director at the time, to create a long-range plan for our sporting program. So I was very instrumental in the fact that fast forward to today: we have thirty-six varsity sports teams that we don’t charge fees for our students to participate [in], that we have great fields that are second to none, you know all of that is stuff that I worked on in my earlier years.

RF: What do you see as another weakness that you really want to continue to address or change?

FF: One of the weaknesses is that we have a strong vocational education program—it has 13 programs—But there’s really 50 programs that are out there for our kids to attend. So, one of the things that I really want to push in this next term is to make those programs available to kids. For example, many of our kids don’t go into electrical, many of our kids don’t go into plumbing, many of our kids don’t go into sheet metal work—and those are all opportunities to earn a family wage and to be part of the middle class. 

And the other thing that I’m working with folks on is we need to create a pipeline for our paraprofessionals to get their bachelor’s and master’s degrees. You know our paraprofessionals—you know 50% of our paraprofessionals are minorities. And we have a goal to increase our teachers of color, which we are doing a very good job at. And we can do better. And creating a pipeline where we can help support them getting their bachelor’s and master’s degrees is really important to me.  

RF: Do you have an ideal, dream timeline in place for either of those?

FF: Well, yeah. I’m certainly going to try and get it done by the next term. And probably sooner than that. I mean, the vocational thing is something I’ve spent a lot of time on and I really want to move on that. 

RF: Over your years and many terms on the School Committee, have you seen the fundamental role of the School Committee change in the Cambridge community?

FF: Well, before 1993, before the Educational Reform Act passed, School Committees had tremendous power. We had to vote to hire all the teachers in the system, we were the ones that hired all the coaches, we could set our budget which the city council had to approve. But after the Educational Reform Act … they so-called “professionalized” everything. So, the city manager was the one now who had the authority to set the budget, the superintendents—our duties became still significant—but our responsibilities fell into three categories. You know, policy, setting the budget and supervising/hiring-firing the superintendent of schools.

I think the power has certainly changed since 1993. Every two years, a lot of different things can happen. In theory, because we have school improvement councils at every school, that is something that is the vehicle for parent input to develop school improvement plans for their schools. Although this year, .  ..all of our superintendent’s strategic plan and all school improvement plans are all linked together with the common goal of reducing the achievement gap and focusing in on equity. So, for the first time in a long time, we have basically aligned a lot of the systems that we have. Improvement is all about systems and so the systems are all aligned and heading in the right direction to reduce the achievement gap.

 RF: How do you anticipate the community’s role in the changes you’ve mentioned to change further over time, do you think it is going to become more heavily relied on or do you think the power dynamic we have now will be maintained for a long time?

FF:  I sense that… I for one would like to see parent involvement in some of the major decisions we make. I’d like to see parent involvement increased. I think committees are reluctant; every now and then you get a few people who really have strong opinions that sometimes dissuade elected bodies from inviting more people into the decision making role, and I think that we have to change that. But you know, I’ll give you one example, the Olá program, the Portuguese immersion program at the King Open. They were a group that organized and wanted to expand their program. And they did it in a very thoughtful, organized way that members didn’t feel threatened by. And they did it by presenting a lot of information and that worked.

RF: So you’ve named a few of these already, but if you have a favorite, or just any one that you are especially proud of—a policy change or structural shift—that you’ve been behind or new program implementation that…?

 FF: One of the things which I did when I first got to the School Committee which was really significant is that, when I first got elected in the ‘80s, we faced layoffs of teachers. Because in the ‘80s, believe it or not, Cambridge was not always wealthy. When I first got on the committee, I was a graduate from Bentley College. And so the mayor appointed me on my very first day on the job as the chairman of the budget to try to get things done. And the first thing we had to do was lay off a lot of teachers. And I took the position that I did not want to lay off teachers of color, and this was in the ‘80s. And that position prevailed. And so in a major lay off in the ‘80s we did not lay off teachers of color and I think that’s where we started …  And today at 25 percent, you know we, we are the second highest in the school system next to Boston with 25 percent of the teachers of color. . . .And actually the irony of it is that by taking a strong position, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get re-elected again. But it was something I believed in and took a stand on and the irony of it is that it’s turned out that I’m the longest-serving member in Cambridge history.

RF: So, how do you think that your knowledge and experience in finance comes into play on the Committee?

FF:  When I was working for the town of Arlington, I was the president of my union. So, one of the tasks that I’ve taken on in the Cambridge public schools is, I basically view myself as one of the negotiators for all of our labor contracts. So, since I’ve been on the committee, we have eight labor unions in our school system, three of which I helped create- the parent liaisons, the security, and substitute teachers- and so, I’ve spent hundreds and sometimes thousands of hours negotiating contracts to make sure that our staff are paid well and have the best benefits of any other school system in Massachusetts.  . . .The fact that I was both president of a labor union and working on the School Committee side as management, you know, I had these unique skills that have led to a remarkable (I don’t want to jinx myself) remarkable success of 36 years of strong labor relations which is really unheard of in many systems. . .Being an expert in the budget and finances, you know one of the things, that has been good about me is that I have strong relationships, being from a municipal background in the town of Arlington, I knew all the major players at city hall and had great relationships with them. And we talk the same finance language and that has been a skill that has meant a lot.

RF: Then, finally, you mentioned this a tiny bit, but where do you see the role of teachers, where do you see overlaps and how do you think your roles interconnect and overlap?

FF: We have great teachers in our public schools. In order for a school system to achieve at really high levels, there’s got to be a strong relationship between the superintendent, the School Committee, and the teachers. And that relationship has to be strong. If there’s an issue of trust which sometimes comes up between the teachers and the School Committee and superintendent, it’s not a good thing. So, you know, the teachers have a union contract, which, you know, which is a powerful document that they’ve negotiated over the years that the School Committee has to agree to follow. It’s probably a 70 page plus document that guides us in a lot of our relationships. But, you know, I spend a lot of time talking to teachers. I encourage the administration to form subcommittees—the number of assessments and tests that we give students—that the teachers are involved in deciding … You know, I don’t want to be a top-down school system, I want to be a bottom-up school system where we are open to teacher suggestions.  . . .I’ve been to schools as early as 6 o’clock in the morning and see teachers there. I’ve been to schools—there was one time I went to a school and there was a light on, it was 9 o’clock, and there were two teachers working on their curriculum. So, I see it all, being a full-time School Committee member. And I see the good teachers we have are exemplary and I see how hard they work. And they’re entitled—we should embrace them in everything we do.

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