With no shortage of problems in the Boston Public Schools, City Councilors Annissa Essaibi George and Michelle Wu seem intent to take them all on as mayor. They each have pitched sweeping plans that call for timely school buses, good schools in every neighborhood, better buildings, more social and mental health services for students, greater access to early education, and rebuilding trust in the system.
But the biggest fight the next mayor might have to wage is one that has not confronted a Boston mayor in more than two decades: maintaining control of the city’s school system. And an intrusion could happen on two different fronts.
The state has indicated it could take over the Boston Public Schools if its performance doesn’t improve fast enough in the coming years, while a coalition of parents and advocacy organizations, fed up with mayoral control of the School Committee, is pushing to replace it with one elected by voters.
Consequently, improvements will need to be swift and decisive in a city where previous mayors have struggled to put BPS on a steady course. The quest to overhaul the school system, regardless of who is elected, also will be far more personal than for any other mayor in recent memory. Both Wu and Essaibi George have children enrolled in Boston schools, and Essaibi George is a former teacher at East Boston High.
“The question for families, students, and voters is who will actually move the needle,” said Will Austin, chief executive officer of Boston Schools Fund, which works with public and private schools in the city. “That’s less about big picture ideas and more about governing and management. . . . There are tons of good ideas in education. It’s whether you have the will or talent to make them happen.”
Both candidates say they are up to the challenge of overhauling the schools and neither wants the district to be taken over by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The agency demanded broad changes within three years following a scathing review in March 2020 that laid bare widespread dysfunction and stubbornly low achievement at dozens of Boston schools.
“Of course, there are big issues that we cannot continue to push down the road,” said Wu in an interview last week, vowing she’d improve the district’s performance and programs. “The DESE report identified gaps and broken systems that have gotten worse and worse and worse year after year. So this is dire and urgent to take action, but we should do it.”
Essaibi George said ensuring every neighborhood has quality schools is work that needs to get done soon.
“It may be a big challenge, but I’m up for that challenge,” she said. “I look forward to that challenge. Our kids, our families, our school communities deserve that. It has to be our obligation as a city to provide that and I’m committed to doing that.”
But the more imminent fight could be over mayoral control of the School Committee. So far, public opinion polls indicate overwhelming support for an elected committee among voters, who will weigh in at the polls on Nov. 2. A Suffolk/Globe/NBC 10 poll last week found 69 percent of respondents favored an elected committee and just 16 percent opposed it.
While the ballot question is nonbinding, it could back the new mayor into a political corner. Neither candidate supports a fully elected School Committee. Wu is open to a majority of seats elected by voters and the rest appointed by the mayor, believing it would be good for the mayor and superintendent to build public support for their policy proposals.
Essaibi George wants to keep the board appointed, although she would let the City Council have a role in the process. The appointed board, which first convened in 1992, had initially been credited for bringing leadership stability to BPS and a period of incremental progress, but that record got upended in recent years with a revolving door of superintendents, declining student achievement, and a number of controversies.
Any changes will require approval from the City Council, mayor, the state Legislature, and voters.
A politically skilled mayor, however, could turn public sentiment against an elected board if voters were asked to give the plan formal approval. Former mayor Thomas M. Menino did just that in 1996, the last time a question appeared on the ballot. Public opinion polls a year earlier showed overwhelming support for an elected board, but Menino orchestrated a commanding ground campaign that delivered a crushing defeat of the binding ballot question.
With Wu leading in the polls, advocates of an elected board are hopeful some members will eventually be chosen by voters. Advocates contend that elected members would be more responsive to educators, parents, students, and the broader community because they would be held accountable by voters.
“It’s one way to put more power into the hands of people,” said Lisa Green of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, noting the growing diversity on the City Council.
In some ways, the fights over the School Committee and the candidates’ education agendas reflect the unfinished business of former mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was appointed US labor secretary earlier this year after nearly eight years in office.
Like Essaibi George and Wu, he made education a centerpiece of his mayoral campaigns and administration, but his record was mixed.
A big stumbling block for Walsh and one that could trip up a new mayor was a failure to build public support for many of his big education initiatives.
For instance, his $1 billion BuildBPS school construction program, which also called for consolidating buildings, often provoked resistance from families whose schools would be closing or who feared their schools might close. Walsh also took heat from some parents and educators after he and former superintendent Tommy Chang decided to part ways in 2018 without involvement from the School Committee, even though the board technically held the power to end his contract.
Now, the new mayor will need to avoid repeating such a situation if she decides she can’t work with current Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who was hired two years ago by the School Committee Walsh appointed. Cassellius has repeatedly taken heat from principals, the teachers union, and families on a wide range of issues, including tardy buses, but has scored some victories, such as raising graduation requirements.
Neither candidate has made a firm decision about Cassellius’s future, although both appear willing to give her a chance.
“I’m inclined to keep her and to work alongside her because of the instability of another superintendent search,” said Essaibi George, noting that the pandemic prevented Cassellius from pursuing all the changes she wants to make.
Wu struck a similar note.
“We need stability in our system,” she said. “When Superintendent Cassellius started, she was our fifth leader for the district in seven years, and I’m looking forward to having the tough conversations about how we ensure accountability for progress.”
The new mayor will be uniquely positioned to enact her education agenda from the start and make any decisions about Cassellius by quickly gaining majority control of the seven-member School Committee. The terms of two members, who were temporarily appointed by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, will expire with her departure and then two other seats are up for reappointment in January. Typically, a new mayor would only get to make about two appointments during the first year in office.
But a new mayor might also need to immediately delve into a potential crisis as soon as the ballots are counted. The school bus drivers’ contract extension is set to expire on Nov. 15, the day before inauguration, and their union is growing agitated that a new deal might not be reached by then.
In a recent posting on its website, the union accused school officials and their transportation contractor, Transdev, of employing “union busting” tactics by refusing to make concessions. The union vowed that a failure to reach a new contract will be the biggest problem the new mayor will face, saying “the time for fruitless talking is over, and the time for preparing to hit the bricks is now.”
Bobby Jenkins, a longtime education advocate, said trust will be paramount in building support for any education changes and all stakeholders need to be involved in the development of those policies.
”The next mayor has to understand all the communities in Boston and the city as a whole,” he said. “She has to earn the trust and make sure that parent engagement is very important. . . . The next mayor has to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Both Wu and Essaibi George, stressing their credentials as BPS mothers, have made family engagement major elements in their education plans.
Some students say they hope whoever is elected will deliver on the promises they made in their proposed education plans, such as boosting mental health support for students and lessening inequality between the schools.
“There should be more resources,” said Ariana Monroig, a member of the Hyde Square Task Force and a junior at the O’Bryant School of Math and Science. “I‘d love to see more equal educational opportunities for everyone rather than for some specific groups of students who seem better than others.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.