The Boston School Committee unanimously elected Alexandra Oliver-Dávila as its new chair Wednesday night, while apologizing for hurtful comments made by the board’s former chair, even as some members defended him.
Oliver-Dávila replaces Michael Loconto, who resigned last month after being caught on a hot mic mocking the names of speakers during a contentious Zoom meeting about the admissions process to the exam schools during the pandemic.
The board also elected Michael O’Neill as its vice chair, a position Oliver-Dávila previously held on the seven-member committee, which is appointed by Mayor Martin J. Walsh.
Oliver-Dávila joined the committee in 2016 and lives in Roslindale. Her 11-year-old daughter attends the sixth grade at the BTU Pilot School in Jamaica Plain. Oliver-Dávila, who holds a bachelor’s degree from Emmanuel College and a master’s in public policy from Tufts University, has served as executive director of Sociedad Latina, a youth development organization in Roxbury, since 1999.
“I hope to earn your trust as well as from the larger community,” Oliver-Dávila told the board. “As the incoming chair of the School Committee, I’m charging us with learning from this painful incident and holding each other accountable, especially during difficult and uncomfortable moments.”
Wednesday’s meeting marked the first time board members had met since Loconto made his remarks on Oct. 21, and they apologized for not publicly addressing his comments that night. Loconto made his offensive remarks immediately after a group of speakers was announced — most of them with Asian names — saying “that was like Shania, Shanaya, Shanay-nay, and Boo Boo, and David, right?”
His mocking sparked a flurry of text messages by some committee members, particularly Oliver-Dávila, O’Neill, and Lorna Rivera, who expressed a mix of shock and empathy as a social-media firestorm ensued, according to copies obtained by the Globe. In a few of those text messages, O’Neill and Oliver-Dávila strategized with Loconto on how to publicly respond.
The incident overshadowed a historic vote the board took that night to temporarily suspend the admission test for the exam schools during the pandemic following emotional testimonies from nearly 200 people. The change calls for basing admission mostly on student grades and giving applicants from low-income areas top priority — a move that is expected to boost the chances of getting into the exam schools for Black and Latino students, while decreasing the odds for Asian and white applicants.
Members expressed remorse for not voicing objections to Loconto’s words sooner.
“My silence did not honor my values and I regret that I did not speak up on behalf of our Asian students and families,” Oliver-Dávila said.
Rivera said she did not mean to disrespect anyone by her actions that night.
“I also truly regret and apologize to the BPS community, especially our Asian-American community for not speaking up at that moment,” Rivera said. “I think again we really need to undertake a deep understanding about how systemic racism operates. We need to continue to dismantle white supremist policies now more than ever. I think that is what we were trying to do that evening. It’s horrible what happened. There is no way to excuse it. I hope I will be forgiven.”
O’Neill said the board needs to learn from the incident and commit to doing better.
“I apologize as a fellow board member for what happened that evening and the pain it caused our communities,” he said.
Khymani James, the student representative, and member Jeri Robinson both said they were disappointed by Loconto’s comment.
“A name isn’t just a name,” said James. “It’s where you come from. It’s who you are. It’s how you move in life.”
Some members defended Loconto’s character, arguing that one incident shouldn’t overshadow his efforts to improve educational equity.
Member Quoc Trancriticized Loconto’s detractors for judging him too harshly, imploring them to show more tolerance, understanding, and forgiveness.
“In my mind that remark was made in jest. It does not define who he is. I still consider him a friend,” Tran said. “I understand the mayor accepted Michael Loconto’s decision to step down because it may be the right thing to do given the political climate but personally I’m resentful for his resignation.”
Member Hardin Coleman read from a letter at the Wednesday night meeting that he had recently sent to Loconto, expressing frustration that the community was unwilling to forgive and instead was exhibiting “anger and distrust.”
“What leaves me discomforted with the response from our community is that the manner of your expulsion from your civic role is a step in direct contradiction to our commitment to restorative justice, a commitment that is deeply supported by many of those who called for your expulsion,” Coleman said.
Go Sasaki, a representative of the Massachusetts Asian American Educators Association, condemned Loconto’s comments during public testimony at the meeting and criticized School Committee members for their behavior. Loconto’s remarks, he said, could be interpreted as discrimination against Black people, too.
“His use of anti-Black language to mock Asian families was unacceptable, but not shocking,” he said. “His comments show that this kind of behavior is normal, even at the highest levels [of the school system]. The texts in the Globe paint a picture of School Committee members more concerned with protecting former Chairperson Loconto than with the egregious racism against our families of color. Shame.”