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Michael Loconto’s downfall shocked nearly everyone

Outgoing Boston School Committee Chairperson Michael D. O'Neill, right, turned over the gavel to Michael Loconto in January 2018.
Outgoing Boston School Committee Chairperson Michael D. O'Neill, right, turned over the gavel to Michael Loconto in January 2018.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The comment was so startling that Ricardo Arroyo initially assumed the Boston School Committee meeting had been Zoom-bombed.

The district councilor had been trading celebratory texts with Tanisha Sullivan, the president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, over the School Committee’s plans to overhaul admission procedures for the city’s three exam schools, when he clearly heard someone mocking the ethnic names of speakers in the meeting.

That “someone” was committee chairman Michael Loconto, who resigned under fire Thursday.

Arroyo said he was in shock when he realized it had come from the chairman, before the committee had cast its dramatic vote. “I thought it came from a failure to mute the previous commenter,” Arroyo said, recalling remarks from the night before. “Then he apologized for it, and my jaw dropped again.”

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There’s no good reason, and no excuse, for mocking the ethnicity of people who are speaking in a public meeting. Nonetheless, Loconto attempted an explanation, claiming his remarks were a reference to a children’s book. Later, in a disjointed but contrite closing statement, he expressed embarrassment and remorse, but too late.

The great irony here is that Loconto’s baffling downfall came just after the School Committee had committed its most progressive vote in years, taking on the deep inequity of admissions to the coveted exam schools.

The question of who gets to attend Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School has been bitterly divisive for years. It has routinely pitted white and Asian parents — whose students make up the majority of the admitted students — against Black and Latino parents, who often feel shut out of a game whose rules are known only to a select crowd.

It’s been a political third rail, with even serious discussion of the issue shut down by successive mayors.

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But the pandemic gave the current working group an opening to argue for a one-year suspension of the old system, to be replaced by a formula that considers grades, MCAS scores, and ZIP codes — an effort to create neighborhood diversity as well.

The new plan sailed through the School Committee on a 7-0 vote, after more than eight hours of discussion and debate. They’re calling it an interim solution, but the truth is there’s probably no turning back from this step toward equity in the exam schools.

That’s not to say that there isn’t still significant opposition to overhauling exam school admissions. But finally there is also a consensus that the old system isn’t fair, and that a standardized test is far from the only valid standard for admission.

The challenge of administering the test during a pandemic provided an opening to creating, at least for now, a new approach to admission.

“It’s not perfect by any stretch,” Sullivan said of the new formula. “But it acknowledges that we’re in a public health crisis, the numbers are going up, and also did not shy away from using this as an opportunity to really advance neighborhood diversity, social and economic diversity, and racial diversity. We did not miss the moment on this one.”

This decision marks a political turning point for Mayor Martin J. Walsh. Not long ago, tinkering with the exam schools was a nonstarter at City Hall. For former superintendent Tommy Chang, talking about changing the formula was the beginning of the end of his support from Walsh. That’s how sensitive this has been, and how much politicians have feared a backlash.

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“He had been part of the power structure that prevented even conversations about this,” Sullivan said of Walsh. “I have witnessed his transformation on this issue and his willingness to have a conversation and his openness that there might be a different way. Only because of him were we able to do this work.”

This decision — and the controversy that accompanied it — came at a typically convulsive moment for the Boston Public Schools, for which impending disaster is a frequent visitor. The BPS has abruptly suspended in-class learning, due to an increase in infection rates across the city. It’s a worst-case scenario for Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, confirmation of all the doubts of the Boston Teachers Union that schools could safely open. Turns out, they couldn’t.

And then a victory for racial equity in exam school admissions — however fraught — has turned into a maelstrom, with Loconto the unlikely figure at its center. His best and worst moments as chair came in the same meeting. Even in the turbulent history of Boston’s school politics, that could be a first.

But perhaps it exemplifies a city where the difficult and often messy work of working toward equity will never travel a straight line. Even in good moments, trouble can lurk around the corner.

Sullivan reflected on the contradictions of Loconto’s evening. “He said a thing, he needs to take responsibility for it, and the consequence is his resignation,” she said Thursday. “In the same night, he helped move our city forward on an issue that we could not find the courage to confront until 2020.”

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Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.