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It was an emotional hearing at the Tuesday night meeting over whether Boston should return to an elected school committee.
The three-hour City Council Education Committee meeting covered a lot of ground. But in the end, most of the comments shared one common theme: The voices of the community are not being heard.
"The real issue is whether or not the Boston School Committee is truly accountable to the needs of Boston families, students and educators," said Brandy Oakley, the executive director of Educators for Excellence Boston, a teacher-led policy advocacy group.
"Every voice has to matter," she added. "And there must be multiple avenues for engagement."
She explained the vast majority of her group's members oppose the current structure. Right now, all school committee members are chosen by the mayor from a list of candidates developed by a citizen nominating commission. Oakley said that ultimately gives too much power to one person.
The hearing was organized by Boston City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George, who began speaking about starting an official dialogue like this in January, following community frustration over the school committee's vote to change school start times. Many parents criticized the process behind the time changes as well as the schedule shifts, and the district eventually shelved the plans.
"That effort to change the school start and end times and not really include school communities in that conversation really put a lot of people over the edge when we talk about the role of the school committee and making education decisions," she said.
Essaibi-George said that she's personally not convinced an elected school committee is the answer, but added that it is past time to publicly examine the current system.
"The public has not had an opportunity to talk out loud, in a formal setting, on the record about what their experience has been with the school committee," she explained.
Mayor Marty Walsh was not at the meeting, but he rejected the idea of moving away from an appointed committee.
"When it was elected, it was a disaster," he said.
The city switched to its current mayoral-appointment structure in 1992, after mounting criticism over student performance, budget deficits and corruption. Boston is the only municipal school district in Massachusetts with an appointment system. In fact, the vast majority of school boards in the U.S. are elected, with the exception of large cities like Chicago and New York City, which also have appointed school board members.
Walsh argued that since doing away with school committee elections, the governing body has been running with better representation and more stability.
Former City Councilor Lawrence DiCara, a panelist at the hearing, also opposed the idea of moving away from an appointed body. He said the 1970s were not a good era for the Boston Public School Committee.
"There were some decent people who served on those committees. But there were many who ran only because there was an available office," said DiCara. He argued that mayoral committee appointments actually increase accountability because the mayor is fully accountable for the public education system.
But most at the meeting insisted times have changed. They argued the school committee currently runs at the behest of the mayor and the only way to truly meet the needs of the local community is to restore the democratic process.
"Democracy is messy," said Mary Battenfeld, a member of the grassroots parent advocacy group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST). "A lot can go wrong. But that doesn’t mean we should do wrong in return."
Additional discussion about this issue is expected in the coming months. But Essaibi-George says formal recommendations and final decisions are likely years away.
This segment aired on December 12, 2018.
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