IT’S GETTING slippery around the Boston School Committee headquarters on Court Street. And the member most likely to lose footing is John Barros, the executive director of a well-known nonprofit organization, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative.
Barros, who is serving his first term on the School Committee, has missed about 20 percent of the meetings since May 2010. And when he does attend, he has removed himself from the School Committee chamber twice to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest related to his organization’s role as a “primary community partner’’ in a recently approved in-district charter school.
Barros, 38, is a local success story, rising from a modest background in Roxbury to Dartmouth College to a seat of urban power. He is the first person of Cape Verdean descent to serve on the School Committee and a deep source of pride within his community. But his presence on the mayorally appointed school board is starting to undermine his own main causes — quality education and economic development in poor urban neighborhoods.
Barros’s nonprofit organization will provide “services and activities,’’ including student recruitment, parent/community collaboration, and a networked data system for the new school, according to the charter application approved last month by the state Board of Education. That sounds like a contract. And it’s way too cozy. Generally, state ethics laws forbid city employees from having a financial interest in another city contract. Barros is paid $7,500 annually as a member of the School Committee in addition to his roughly $80,000 annual salary at the nonprofit group.
Barros said the language in the application has been misunderstood. He stressed that his nonprofit organization will provide such services - as it does at a handful of other public schools - free of charge to the city.
“Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative will receive no public funds for these services,’’ said Barros. “It’s our contribution.’’
But a bigger problem remains. Barros’s key duties as a School Committee member are to monitor the school system’s budget and evaluate the school superintendent. How can the public be confident that the school superintendent will make clear-headed decisions regarding the in-district charter school when her own job and budget could depend on the good will of a member with a special interest in such a school? That’s why the state’s conflict of interest law prohibits actions by School Committee members that would cause a “reasonable person’’ to conclude that improper influence or favoritism might worm its way into official duties.
This is an especially sensitive time for Boston’s schools. At a citywide meeting Saturday, parents are expected to get their first glimpse of the Menino administration’s effort to shift school assignment policy closer toward a neighborhood schools model. Some parents are frantic that there may not be sufficient quality schools near their homes. Trust in the school department and the seven-member School Committee has rarely been more important.
The relationship between Barros’s organization and the Dudley Street Neighborhood School doesn’t inspire such trust. In fact, it has the distinct appearance of a conflict of interest. On Wednesday night, Boston School Committee chair Gregory Groover asked Barros to prepare a disclosure form for the state Ethics Commission. Barros said it should be completed in a matter of a few days. But this should have been done months ago when Barros was recusing himself from discussions and the vote on the new charter school.
The Menino administration leans heavily toward neighborhood activists when it makes appointments to important boards. But those activists arrive with neighborhood entanglements. The city’s legal department needs to intervene more aggressively and quickly to avert potential conflicts of interest. Homegrown activists like Barros make this a better city. But they don’t necessarily make for a stronger School Committee.
Bostonians have voted twice against an elected school board in favor of a mayorally appointed model. It was their way to put an end to an entity that had functioned more like a patronage center than a policy-making body dating back to the 1930s. Barros and his many supporters need to understand that even the appearance of a conflict of interest today stirs up those ghosts. And the fastest way to exorcise them would be for Barros to vacate his seat for someone free of such encumbrances.
Lawrence Harmon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.