The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, chair of the Boston School Committee, has resigned from the board, city officials announced Tuesday, following a public uproar over text messages she sent during a meeting last fall disparaging West Roxbury families.
The texts, which were made public Monday, had quickly ignited the campaign trail, with a growing number of candidates for mayor and City Council calling for her ouster on Monday and Tuesday. As it turned out, Oliver-Dávila had quietly resigned Monday, although city officials did not make her decision public until Tuesday afternoon.
In a statement, Oliver-Dávila apologized for the comments she made and “the hurt they have caused.” She had been exchanging texts with Lorna Rivera, who resigned from the School Committee last week.
“I regret my personal texts, it was inappropriate, but I am not ashamed of the feelings from history that made me write those words,” said Oliver-Dávila, who is of Argentinian and Nicaraguan descent and recalled being taunted as a child by her classmates in West Roxbury. “My lived experience of growing up fearing people from certain neighborhoods, the neighborhood I lived in, is real and is what helped shape who I am today.”
Oliver-Dávila, who had served on the board since 2016, said many of those feelings came flooding back on the night she exchanged the texts during a highly charged School Committee meeting in October during which the board approved a temporary change to the exam school admission process that included dropping the entrance test requirement.
The change generated lopsided opposition from white and Asian parents, a number of whom resided in West Roxbury. Under the temporary admission plan, most seats were allocated by ZIP code and projections at the time showed fewer acceptances would go to white and Asian applicants, while more would go to Black and Latino students. Some families found the changes to be discriminatory and unfair.
That meeting also led to the resignation last fall of then-School Committee chair Michael Loconto, who was caught on a hot microphone mocking the Asian-sounding names of some speakers.
Now, some public officials are seizing upon the insensitive remarks by the three former School Committee members as a reason to halt another effort underway to permanently change the exam-school admission criteria. The School Committee is supposed to receive recommendations this month from a task force.
“The mayor needs to stop the process,” said state Representative Edward Coppinger, who represents West Roxbury and called for Oliver-Dávila to resign. He said the text messages and Loconto’s comments showed committee members had preconceived biases.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey said in a statement Tuesday that she is committed to having the School Committee vote this summer on permanently changing the admission requirements. She also said she respected the decision of Oliver-Dávila and Rivera to resign.
“Their private remarks, which were recently made public, were unfortunate and unfairly disparaged members of the Boston Public Schools community,” Janey said. “As women of color who advocate for racial equity in our schools, I also understand their comments were made in the wake of death threats and unacceptable racist attacks that were frightening, offensive, and painful.”
Janey said she intends to fill the vacancies left on the seven-member board by the women’s departures, saying she is “committed to preserving Latinx representation” on the School Committee.
“Sadly, their departure also leaves a void in Latina leadership on our School Committee that I am determined to address,” she said.
Questions have been raised about whether Janey as acting mayor has the legal authority to make appointments, but there is precedence for an acting mayor to replace School Committee members.
In 1993, while Thomas M. Menino served as acting mayor, he appointed Alfreda Harris to the School Committee. The Boston Teachers Union sought to invalidate Harris’s appointment in Suffolk Superior Court after she voted to reject their contract. But a judge refused, arguing the teachers union lacked legal authority to challenge the appointment.
The Globe first reported on Monday the text exchanges between Oliver-Dávila and Rivera. The messages were originally collected by the city last fall at the request of the Globe, which sought all texts regarding school business that transpired during the meeting. But city officials, who gave the Globe dozens of texts in November, decided to keep secret the most controversial exchanges between Oliver-Dávila and Rivera.
“Best school committee meeting ever,” Oliver-Dávila texted Rivera. “I’m trying not to cry.”
“Wait until the white racists start yelling at us,” Rivera texted back. “Whatever. They’re delusional,” texted Oliver-Dávila. “I hate WR,” she texted Rivera again, in reference to West Roxbury.
“Sick of Westie whites,” Rivera replied. “Me too. I really feel like saying that,” Oliver-Dávila texted.
It’s not clear why city and school officials withheld the messages from public release last fall. At the time, the city’s legal department suggested in a letter to the Globe that all text messages pertaining to school issues were provided, but noted the “BPS did omit portions deemed not ‘related to BPS issues.’ ”
In the last few weeks, an anonymous tipster began alerting media outlets to the existence of the omitted texts.
Rivera told the Globe on Monday that she thinks the suppressed text messages were leaked as part of a “right-wing coordinated effort to derail [the] BPS exam school vote.”
In an e-mail to supporters Tuesday night, City Council candidate Erin Murphy, a former Boston Public Schools teacher, urged the city’s Office of Public Records, BPS, and the city’s legal department “to investigate and explain to the people of Boston why the public record of the texts between the School Committee members at a public meeting were withheld” from the public last fall.
The controversy over the texts is expected to intensify calls to overhaul the appointed School Committee by moving to a board entirely elected by voters or at least a portion of them, and mayoral candidates seized upon the issue Monday and Tuesday.
State Representative Jon Santiago, who is running for mayor and supports having a majority of School Committee members elected by voters, condemned the comments, saying on Twitter “all BPS families must be treated with respect.”
City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is running for mayor and called on Oliver-Dávila to resign on Tuesday, said the School Committee and the school system have a lot of work to do to rebuild trust.
“It was a big meeting where one of the most-often discussed issues in our district was formally on the agenda and it was made even more pressurized because community members in general feel there is so little chance to influence public policy,” Wu said in an interview.
In a statement prior to Oliver-Dávila stepping down, Wu said, “It’s unacceptable for any of our families or communities in Boston to feel devalued or treated with contempt, and it’s especially damaging for that to come from decision-makers entrusted with setting policies that deeply impact our residents.”
City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who also is running for mayor, said Oliver-Dávila and Rivera broke the public trust “by making problematic generalizations about one neighborhood.”
“These comments were in poor judgment and indefensible as public servants,” she said in a statement. “They also point to the pain and racism that many folks of color have experienced in their lives and in their work to make our school system more equitable and how difficult it is to name that when it happens.”
State Representative Edward Coppinger and City Councilor Matt O’Malley, who both represent West Roxbury, were among the first to press Oliver-Dávila to step down.
“To her credit, Alex called me tonight and apologized for her offensive comments about my neighborhood and my district. It took guts, and I truly appreciate her reaching out,” O’Malley wrote on Twitter, noting he accepted her apology but still urged her to resign. “Unfortunately, the trust has been broken irrevocably between many BPS families & members of the policy setting body.”
Disparaging neighborhoods prevents understanding, collaboration, & is counter-productive to educating the city's students as a whole.— Matt O'Malley😷 (@MattOMalley) June 8, 2021
Public service is a great honor & one that comes with immense responsibility. Those of us lucky enough to serve must never lose sight of that.
Mary Tamer, a City Council candidate from West Roxbury and former School Committee member, also expressed concerns about the texts. .
“Families in all of Boston’s neighborhoods should be treated with empathy, respect, compassion, and kindness,” Tamer said in a statement. “Words matter and we must set an example for our children and demand the highest level of accountability for all of our public officials.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.