The next time the City of Boston says that it has complied with a public records request and leveled with the public, will anyone believe them?
The city’s credibility is now in doubt, after the way it handled the fallout from a now-infamous Oct. 21, 2020, school committee meeting. Three school committee members have now resigned as a direct result of their behavior at that meeting, after making insulting and inappropriate statements.
But it’s the city that may have actually broken a law, by failing to fully comply with a public records request from the Globe for records related to the meeting. If Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Acting Mayor Kim Janey want the city to be regarded as trustworthy in the future, they’ll need to figure out exactly who failed to provide the records and ensure it never happens again.
The nine-hour meeting, held on Zoom, was supposed to be historic. The appointed board unanimously approved a dramatic, but temporary, policy change in the way students are admitted to the city’s three selective and prestigious exam schools, dropping the admission test and adopting a system based on grades and ZIP codes, yielding a class with more Black and Latino students.
At the meeting, many white and Asian parents spoke out against the new admissions policy. The school committee chair, Michael Loconto, was caught on a hot mike mocking Asian American commenters.
Days after the meeting, the Globe’s James Vaznis filed a public records request with Boston Public Schools for “copies of all cellular telephone text messages and e-mails related to BPS issues that were sent and received by each Boston School Committee member during their meeting that began on Oct. 21 and that ended on Oct. 22.”
Under the state’s public records and open meeting laws, the public has the right to observe and review how school committees, city and town councils, and boards of selectmen, among other appointed or elected government bodies, deliberate and make decisions during public hearings.
On Nov. 5, the Boston Public Schools’ Office of Legal Advisor sent Vaznis what it claimed were the responsive communications, including eight pages of text transcripts.
But as the Globe’s Marcela García reported earlier this month, the city improperly withheld clearly relevant text messages. The night of the meeting, members Lorna Rivera and Alexandra Oliver-Dávila had a text exchange that was turned over to BPS but was not given to the Globe:
“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.
BPS said it “did omit portions deemed not ‘related to BPS issues,’ ” which was the language in the Globe’s records request. But it’s hard to see how anyone would reach that conclusion about the exchange in question — and even harder considering the texts that BPS did produce between Rivera and Oliver-Dávila. At one point, for instance, Oliver-Dávila asked Rivera how to find tweets regarding the meeting. Rivera also sent Oliver-Dávila a text expressing surprise that 170 people were slated to speak at the meeting and wondered if she’d be able to stay awake.
The fact that BPS released those trivial messages makes it even more striking that they withheld the West Roxbury exchange, which was far more clearly about “BPS issues.”
Earlier this month, Oliver-Dávila learned the withheld texts had been leaked and a local reporter had just filed their own public records request asking specifically for those in their attempt to authenticate them. Rivera and Oliver-Dávila instead shared them with García, of the Globe. Rivera had already resigned and Oliver-Dávila did hours after the texts became public.
Whatever the motives of the leaker, if it were not for them, the city would have successfully covered up records that the public was entitled to see. The Globe has now filed an appeal with the state’s supervisor of records, who could determine that BPS violated the law. Unfortunately, although the public records law enables the supervisor to order BPS to belatedly produce the missing records, it does not allow her to hold BPS accountable for failing to do so in the first place or to file suit if BPS resists the order.
BPS owes the public an explanation. Trust in government only erodes when agencies skirt laws meant to ensure transparency. When a decision-maker on a city committee expresses hatred for a whole neighborhood, that’s something the public has a right to know about — and the city has no right to hide.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.