Fred Fantini was elected to the Cambridge School Committee in 1981, one year before his now-colleague Ayesha M. Wilson was born. He’s served ever since — including during Wilson’s time as a Cambridge Public Schools student — and now, over 40 years later, the two sit on the same committee.
But Fantini’s four-decade career is coming to a close: Last month, the School Committee’s longest-serving member announced his retirement, thanking the citizens of Cambridge for the “honor” they gave him.
“Almost every day when I woke up, I promised myself I’d do something for the schools,” he said in an interview. “I always tried to be present in everything I did.”
Since he started his work, Fantini has attended hundreds of community gatherings and knocked on thousands of doors while campaigning. In his time on the committee, he managed the district’s budget and worked to implement programs that helped students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including an early college program and paraprofessional career pathway program. His impact, his colleagues say, spreads throughout Cambridge, the city he was born in and rarely leaves, except for the occasional vacation.
As a lifelong Cambridge resident, Fantini’s support for the city and its schools runs deep, Wilson said, marveling at Fantini’s constant presence in the community.
“It’s hard for me to be everywhere, but somehow, he is,” Wilson said. “He prided himself on being in those spaces to celebrate our young people, our educators, and our district as a whole.”
To Fantini, that was just part of the job.
“The best way to learn what’s going on in schools is to be constantly available and constantly present,” he said.
That quality spoke volumes to Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui. She said Fantini has prioritized the city in a way that will be remembered for generations to come, especially when it comes to the part of the job that matters most: being part of the community.
“He came from a Cambridge Public School education, and he has a love for kids’ success that’s at the forefront of his work,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot from him.”
Kristen Emack, a parent liaison in the Cambridge Public School District, said Fantini’s attendance of School Committee meetings and parent-teacher events helped bridge gaps between families and local government. He played a huge role in helping families get their voices heard in public, and he was instrumental in networking and relationship-building behind the scenes, she said.
“Fred was willing to go the extra mile for families,” she said. “It was support that came from the heart.”
Fantini joined the public School Committee in the 1980s inspired by his brother, who served on the committee for a decade. His brother and father — a mechanic — were ever-present community members, he said, who showed him the importance of being a good neighbor.
“That’s what got me started,” Fantini said. “We were all of the same thinking: that you have to contribute to your community.”
With a finance and accounting degree from Bentley College, Fantini was appointed by then-Mayor Alfred Vellucci for the role of budget chairperson. Fantini said this role fast-tracked his knowledge of the school system.
His financial background continued to serve him well, he said, especially as the district became more affluent. His colleagues say he will be sorely missed, though many admit they expect to see him around.
“It’s not just that when he’s campaigning he seems to get to an impossible number of houses, or an impossible number of events. … He’s really there,” said fellow committee member David Weinstein. “It’s very hard to imagine the Cambridge Public School Committee without Fred Fantini.”
Weinstein joined the committee in January 2020 alongside several other members, including Siddiqui. Just months later, the COVID-19 pandemic posed unprecedented challenges that even Fantini’s decades of experience couldn’t prepare him for — but he “dug in like the rest of us,” Weinstein said.
About a year later, Fantini gained parent approval for his support of the district’s effort to expand in-person learning opportunities. Peter Lubetsky, who has two children in Cambridge Public Schools, commended Fantini’s unwavering service and dedication to helping students and families without seeking personal or political gain.
“It’s hard to find that kind of commitment to a community without self-interest,” he said. “It’s so rare to find someone that’s doing it truly for altruistic reasons.”
It was during the pandemic that Siddiqui and Fantini worked to launch the Early College Program at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. The program, which is now in its second year, allows students to complete college-level academic work, free of charge. It focuses on BIPOC students, first-generation students, students on free and reduced lunch programs, and students with disabilities.
Fantini was also instrumental in the Educator Pathway Program, Wilson said. This two-year program helps CPS employees pursue and attain teaching licenses, and created a lasting impact on teaching diversity among and outside of Cambridge, according to Siddiqui.
“When we go to the graduations for these paraprofessionals, it’s amazing to see that he really pushed for that and helped shape that,” she said.
Fantini said the Early College and Educator Pathway programs are two of his proudest accomplishments. He emphasized the value of helping students further their education, adding that, in the case of the Pathway Program, the benefits doubled as paraprofessionals returned to the Cambridge community.
“We did a great thing for our [current] students,” he said. “[These paraprofessionals] already knew the system, the curriculum, the kids, the families, the community. That really created something special.”
Looking back at his career, Fantini said he feels deeply appreciative of his time on the School Committee and that he plans to make himself available to advise the committee, picking up the phone or attending community events if needed, even after his term concludes this winter.
“I really did dedicate seven days a week for 40 years to the Cambridge Public Schools,” he said. “I loved it and I worked hard at it.”
Now, he said, he’s “looking for suggestions” for things to do in retirement.