For Suleika Soto, a parent organizer with two children in the Boston school system, her desire to bring back an elected School Committee, after three decades of mayoral control, is about restoring voting rights and empowering communities of color to hold school officials accountable when they don’t listen to their concerns.
It is a critical measure, she contends, in a district that has been failing tens of thousands of Black and Latino students for generations, while the School Committee has often subjected their schools to devastating budget cuts or even shut down their schools, despite protests from the communities.
“Parents just get dragged along and decisions are being made for us and not with us,” said Soto, who works for the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “The School Committee does what it wants or what the mayor wants. There is no accountability.”
Voters across Boston will be able to weigh in on a nonbinding referendum on Tuesday about whether the city should return to an elected School Committee. Boston is the only traditional school system in the state where the School Committee is appointed by the mayor and just one of a few nationwide.
In many ways, advocates for an elected school committee frame their position as a civil rights issue. They aim to end voter disenfranchisement in communities of color whose children comprise about 85 percent of the 51,000 students in the Boston Public Schools. They note their push to elect the School Committee comes at a time when other places nationwide, such as Georgia and Texas, are erecting barriers to voting.
“We are doing what we can here in Boston to not only protect voting rights but to expand voting rights,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. “We are hopeful that Bostonians on Tuesday will make clear they want to expand voting rights and make sure Bostonians have the opportunity to select who they want on the School Committee.”
While the referendum is purely advisory, a victory at the polls could compel the new mayor to give up control of the seven-member School Committee. Public opinion polls have shown overwhelming support for an elected School Committee, including a Suffolk/Globe/NBC10 poll in October with 69 percent favoring.
It was a nonbinding referendum, narrowly passed by voters in 1989, that eventually led to the creation of the mayoral-appointed School Committee. Former mayor Raymond Flynn was frustrated with the dysfunction and crazy antics of the elected School Committee, which was running up annual budget deficits while the school system was languishing in poor performance.
Flynn, however, later expressed regret over the change, which many communities of color had rejected and organizations like the NAACP opposed.
The appointed School Committee, which first convened in 1992, was initially credited by many as bringing stability to the district, with two long-term superintendents serving under the tenure of former mayor Thomas M. Menino. But in recent years, the body has increasingly provoked controversy beyond approving budget cuts and school closings and also has been mired in its own embarrassing missteps.
In the past year, two School Committee chairs and another member resigned after making racially insensitive comments, while a student representative also quit out of frustration that student concerns weren’t being taken seriously, among other issues. This summer, the School Committee was caught off guard after learning that Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’s educator license had expired one month after they extended her contract.
Jeri Robinson, chair of the School Committee, defended her board’s record in improving academic programs and increasing public engagement.
“We have heard hours of public testimony and we have changed our approach based on what we have heard,” she said in a statement. “The Committee has opened our meetings to the public in unprecedented ways by translating all of our materials and providing real-time interpretation in eight languages and American Sign Language.”
The effort to dissolve the appointed School Committee so far has attracted little opposition. Organizations that have long defended mayoral control, such as the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the Boston Foundation, declined to comment for this story.
But the landscape could change after voters on Tuesday elect a new mayor. Neither candidate, City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, supports a fully elected board. Wu favors a majority elected and the rest appointed. Essaibi George prefers an appointed board.
It’s also unclear which way a newly elected City Council might lean on the issue, although movement is already afoot in that chamber for an elected School Committee. Earlier this fall, Councilors Julia Mejia and Ricardo Arroyo submitted a home-rule petition to their colleagues for consideration to make such a change.
In an interview last week, Mejia said the language in the petition will be refined as the council consults with the community about the structure of an elected board, from the number of seats to whether members should be elected at large, by district, or a combination of both. She said the change should make the School Committee more responsive to the community.
“It will be a lot harder for the School Committee to vote for things if it goes against the will of the people,” she said.
Any changes to the School Committee’s governance will require approval of a home-rule petition from the council, mayor, the Legislature, and governor. It’s unclear whether voters will have another opportunity to officially weigh in after Tuesday’s vote.
Neil Sullivan, who was Flynn’s policy adviser, questions how much political influence Tuesday’s vote could have. He criticized the question for only allowing voters to choose between a fully elected or fully appointed board and not one that would mix the two approaches. He noted a Suffolk University/Globe poll this summer found stronger support for the blended option at 48 percent compared with 39 percent for a fully elected board and 6 percent for an appointed one.
“That makes the referendum result meaningless from a public policy point of view and some might say disingenuous,” said Sullivan, who is now executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which works with Boston schools on youth workforce development.
But Tito Jackson, a former city councilor with Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, said he can’t fathom a reason to deny residents and taxpayers an elected School Committee.
“I would ask anyone including those who went through desegregation in the city of Boston why wouldn’t you want to enfranchise the more than 80 percent of families [in the BPS] who are more diverse than any other time in our city to have an opportunity to have a say in the future of the school district and their children,” he said.