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Janey seeks Latino nominees for School Committee

Tension over admissions standards at Boston's three exam schools has boiled over into controversy.
Tension over admissions standards at Boston's three exam schools has boiled over into controversy.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

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Acting Mayor Kim Janey intends to begin seeking applications for new Boston School Committee members as soon as Thursday with an eye toward preserving Latino representation — a move that could quell concerns raised by Latino leaders Monday but raise others over her authority to make appointments.

“Even as membership on the school committee changes, my dedication to the needs of the Latinx community remains steadfast,” Janey said in a statement Monday.

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Her move came after more than 30 Latino leaders sent a letter Monday asking her to immediately appoint two Latino leaders to the School Committee to replace Lorna Rivera and chair Alex Oliver-Dávila, who resigned amid a racially charged controversy last week. The departures left one Latino member on the School Committee of seven members.

“I think given that 20 percent of Boston residents are Latinos and 42 percent of Boston Public School students are Latino, it only makes sense to have Latino representation on the board,” said one of those who signed the letter, Grace R. Moreno, executive director of the Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce. “It’s unfortunate that this is the reality of today’s time but it seems like if the voice is not at the table representing the particular ethnic group, they get left out of the conversation.”

Janey said she has communicated her priority to preserving Latino representation to the Boston School Committee Nominating Panel, which will begin accepting applications on Thursday.

“It’s not an easy place to be a Latino,” said Miren Uriarte, a former Boston School Committee member who signed on to the letter. She pointed to the difficulty of representing the needs of the community on the board when Latino students, particularly English language learners, have some of the worst outcomes in school. “There’s tremendous pressure to vote unanimously. Whenever you think differently or feel aggrieved by what is happening, there’s no way to put it anywhere.”

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Uriarte, however, she is heartened by the activism that the departures of the two Latina members has sparked and the sense that this could be a “turning point” for education advocacy in the community.

With their outreach, the Latino leaders are signaling they do not intend to cede ground in the still-looming debate over permanent admissions changes to the exam schools, where Latino representation is lacking. Entrance exams for the city’s three elite schools were halted by the pandemic, and the School Committee agreed in the fall to abandon them for next year’s incoming class, relying instead on grades, with seats allocated by student ZIP code, and a priority given to low-income areas.

But white and Asian students sued over the changes, calling them discriminatory. During a meeting when the School Committee approved the admissions changes last fall, Oliver-Dávila and Rivera exchanged text messages anticipating blowback from “white racists” and generalizing about those viewed as beneficiaries of the previous admissions method as “Westie whites.” West Roxbury had long sent a disproportionate share of students to Boston Latin School, the city’s most elite exam school, but would lose seats to the ZIP code distribution.

The public release of those messages last week prompted an outcry from constituents and calls for resignations, including from City Councilor Matt O’Malley and state Representative Edward Coppinger, who both represent West Roxbury.

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But the Latino leaders argued in their letter that the text messages were leaked to disrupt an upcoming decision on whether to make the admissions changes permanent.

“We believe that this leak was an attempt by status quo supporters to diminish the important work Alex and Lorna have done on the School Committee — and in particular their fight to ensure equitable access and opportunities for Black and Latino students, as well as English Language Learners,” the Latino leaders wrote. “This course of events also underscores the painful historical context of racism in our City.”

Oliver-Dávila is the executive director of Sociedad Latina, which works with Latino youth and families on issues including lack of educational opportunities. Rivera is director of the Mauricio Gastón Institute and an associate professor of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The letter called on the acting mayor to “conduct a full investigation and public report into how these text messages were leaked, as whoever within City government did this presents an on-going risk and must be identified and terminated.”

And it asked for two new Latino School Committee members to be appointed before a decision is made solidifying changes to the admissions policy.

Janey’s plan would address that, but could be disputed by her fellow councilors — among them, several mayoral contenders who have been challenging her power as acting mayor. Elevated from the position of City Council president by the departure of former mayor Martin J. Walsh, Janey has limited authority under the city charter, and has already ruffled feathers among her colleagues by seeking to flex mayoral muscle as she campaigns for a full term.

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In 1993, when he was Acting Mayor, Thomas M. Menino appointed a School Committee member on a temporary basis — until the end of the term he was filling. He still faced a legal challenge from the Boston Teachers’ Union, which contended the city charter gives the acting mayor the power to act only on urgent matters. A judge found that the union did not have the authority to challenge the appointment, but that the state attorney general could.

Both Oliver-Dávila and Rivera were reappointed to four-year terms on the School Committee in January 2020. Their successors would normally be expected to fill the remainder of their terms.

In her statement, Janey said she plans a listening session with Latinx leaders next week to air ideas for improving representation on the School Committee and advancing equity in the schools. And she called for School Committee members to receive the racial equity training that is already being provided to City of Boston staff, as a “first step toward setting new rules of engagement among BPS committee members, families and all those with a stake in our schools.”

Read the letter sent to Acting Mayor Kim Janey:

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Read the letter sent to candidates:

This letter was addressed to City Councilor Michelle Wu, but all letters sent to the mayoral candidates were the same, apart from the one to Janey.


Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert.