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An overwhelming number of Bostonians are ready for an elected school committee. Is Mayor Wu?

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When Boston residents in 2021 voted overwhelmingly to restore an elected school committee, advocates imagined the change — ending 30 years of a committee appointed by the city's mayor — beginning to take effect this year.

But the issue may instead be approaching a political impasse.

Signs of a slowdown have frustrated some education advocates and city council members, who say they will continue to push for an elected school committee. The governing body sets policy, chooses superintendents and shapes the direction of the state’s largest school district.

In December, Mayor Michelle Wu reappointed two of the seven committee members — Quoc Tran and committee chair Geri Robinson — to four-year terms.

And when asked about a possible transition to elections, Wu said in a statement that in the year ahead, she’s “determined to keep the momentum going to reform special education, invest in teaching and learning and rebuild our school facilities.”

Advocates of an elected committee say their 79% victory in 2021 sent a clear message.

“We won every precinct, every ward,” said Lisa Green of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity. “It’s almost the only thing Boston can agree on.”

“To say that it’s not something she (Wu) wants to focus on is kind of sticking your finger in the eye of the voter,” Green added.

The ballot measure

The question put to voters in November 2021 was simple: “Should the current appointed school committee structure be changed to a school committee elected by the residents of Boston?”

At the same time, city councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia submitted a draft home-rule petition that laid out particulars, like the timetable for phasing in an elected body and making room for a voting student member.

The ballot measure itself was “advisory” and legally non-binding. That was by design, said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP and a supporter of an elected committee.

“We wanted to make sure we had a pulse on what residents across the city of Boston wanted to see,” Sullivan said. The result, she added, was a profound affirmation from nearly 100,000 voters.

“Every neighborhood across the city said ‘yes’ to an elected body," she said.

Boston is the only municipal school district in Massachusetts that does not have an elected school board. An elected school committee was phased out in 1992 following a push led by then-Mayor Ray Flynn, angering many members and influential leaders of color.

Sullivan said she sees the restoration of an elected school committee as a civil rights issue, recovering a structure many Bostonians “never gave up on.”

Supporters say there’s a good reason that elected school committees are widespread in the state: because, in Sullivan’s words, they provide “direct accountability to the families and students who rely on our public education system every day.”

Currently, Boston’s appointed school committee is dominated by a diverse mix of seven appointees from education, business and nonprofit backgrounds.

Is now the right time?

The school committee issue was just one of many discussed during the 2021 mayoral race. At the time, Wu said she supported a majority-elected school committee, with some appointed members focused on early childhood, school facilities or vocational education.

That gives supporters of the change, like Sullivan of the Boston NAACP, some hope.

“So at the very least, my expectation is that [Wu] will remain consistent and will work with the city council and will work with residents across the city who are calling for an elected school committee,” she said. “We need to get this done.”

Some pro-election advocates say the move to an elected body would also address at least one major complaint of Boston’s families: a lack of transparency in how the school district operates.

The school committee holds public meetings and often hears lengthy public comments. But when it comes time to vote, they tend to unanimously approve pre-packaged proposals, after polite discussion (and little debate) on issues from in-school masking to a new admissions policy for the exam schools.

All told, it gives the sense that the real decision-making takes place “behind closed doors” and with profound mayoral influence, said Green.

Boston Latin students Kylie Webster-Cazeau and Meggie Noel speak before the Boston School Committee in 2016. (Delores Handy/WBUR)
Boston Latin students Kylie Webster-Cazeau and Meggie Noel speak before the Boston School Committee in 2016. (Delores Handy/WBUR)

Yet, according to veterans of city politics, Wu has good reason to be cautious about a switch to elected members.

“The history of the elected committee is not a pretty one,” said attorney Larry DiCara, who served on the City Council between 1972 and 1981. “People were indicted … members lived very nicely as a result of the money they raised” during campaigns.

While a modern-day elected school committee may not grapple with the problems of decades ago — corruption and office-seeking among them — DiCara said “members of elected committees spend far more time worried about raising money, or what to run for next.”

DiCara is sympathetic to the thought that with BPS under state scrutiny and led by a new superintendent, now is not the best time for this kind of structural reform.

“It’s mighty obvious to anyone that the Boston Public Schools have a lot of challenges with educating children; that should be the priority,” he said.

Bill Walczak, a charter school founder and longtime community activist in Dorchester, sees the 2021 ballot measure as a “false choice” between two inadequate models — one he noted the city has made, unhappily, before.

Walczak supports eliminating the committee altogether, and placing the schools under direct mayoral control as another city department. That idea was championed in a Boston Globe editorial last month.

“People were very dissatisfied with the elected school committee in the past. The question is, would a new elected school committee be any different?” Walczak asked.

What next?

Since this change would affect Boston’s charter, it would need more than just voters' approval to take effect.

The measure will have to be passed by the city council and signed by the mayor, then go up to Beacon Hill for approval in both houses of the legislature and from the governor.

In the coming weeks, the city council is expected to vote on a revised home-rule petition for an elected school committee. Arroyo expects it to pass out of the council — putting the draft petition on Wu’s desk.

If Wu declined to sign the measure, she would put a stop to that process. And she would be within her rights.

“That’s the power of being the mayor: she has the ability to sign it or not,” Arroyo said. “But I don’t think this is an issue that’s just going to go away — I think she will have to address the council and the public on it, at some point.”

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.

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