After Boston voters overwhelmingly supported an elected school committee, city councilors said Wednesday they believe changes are coming for the mayoral-appointed policymaking body that oversees Boston Public Schools, the only non-elected school board in the state.
The Question 3 ballot measure, which passed with 78.7 percent of the vote, was nonbinding, meaning it doesn’t carry legal weight. But councilors say it will prompt them to push for changes that will democratize school decision-making and empower communities of color who have long felt ignored by the appointed committee.
“We got a clear mandate from the people of Boston saying what they want,” said City Councilor Lydia Edwards, who supports an elected committee.
Proponents of the appointed system argue the city benefits from having one person — the mayor — be directly responsible for the schools and who helps keep politics out of education. But critics say the current system is plenty political and voters deserve to choose their own school leaders and hold them accountable for campaign promises. Others support a hybrid model that has some elected and some appointed members.
The Boston School Committee became the state’s sole appointed one in 1992, three years after voters narrowly passed a nonbinding referendum to make the committee appointed. At the time, communities of color and the NAACP opposed the measure, but then-mayor Raymond Flynn and others were frustrated with the dysfunction and antics of an elected committee, which ran up annual budget deficits while the schools’ performance suffered.
Now, some critics of the current system point to recent controversies involving school committee members, including three who resigned after making racially insensitive remarks, and a student representative who resigned over feeling district leaders overlooked students’ concerns. The NAACP, Boston Education Justice Alliance, and other education equity advocates fought to build support for an elected school committee.
At a School Committee meeting Wednesday night, several members said they disagreed with the ballot initiative outcome but respected voters’ wishes. They said they planned to stay committed to their mission of improving schools and not get distracted by the process.
“It definitely lit a fire that the public says we need to focus and we really need to address these longstanding issues,” said Ernani DeAraujo, a committee member.
Councilor Julia Mejia, who supports a fully elected school committee, said she believes most council members — including the newly elected ones who take office in January — support either an elected body or a hybrid one. She said she believes elected members would especially empower communities of color who for too long have felt overlooked.
“Anything that gives people back the power is going to help,” Mejia said. “Real representation and accountability would shift because you’re electing someone now who’s running on a platform.”
Next, the effort heads to the Boston City Council, where councilors Mejia and Ricardo Arroyo already have introduced a measure called a home rule petition to restore an elected body. Mejia said they now plan to convene a working group to hear from the public and thought leaders about the optimal size and structure of the committee.
The council would then vote on the home rule petition. Afterwards, the petition would then go to the mayor for approval, before heading to the State House, where the House and Senate would both vote on it. Lastly, the governor would need to sign it.
“Then we’ll have justice served,” Mejia said. She declined to estimate a timeline for the process given the transitions of power and many competing priorities of the council and State House.
Mejia said she hopes the working group will help address concerns some people have about an elected school committee, such as campaigns being funded by moneyed interests or elected members not representing their constituents.
Mayor-elect Michelle Wu has said she supports a majority-elected hybrid school committee.
But some city councilors want to keep a majority of the committee under the mayor’s control.
Councilor Frank Baker said he believes the mayor having control over the school committee helps keep decision-making efficient and apolitical, though he does support some members being elected by residents.
“It was difficult for the [elected] school committee back in the day to make an actual decision,” Baker said. “It’s going to be about politics, it’s not going to be about schools, that’s my fear.”
But Edwards said Boston voters deserve to have more power.
“We’re not looking for who to blame; we want to shape how schools are doing directly,” Edwards said. “We’re more informed as an electorate than we’ve ever been before, so I’m not worried about people being elected who are just hacks.”
Xyra Mercer, the student representative on the Boston School Committee who is elected by fellow student leaders, said she doesn’t feel strongly about whether the other committee members should be elected or appointed. But one thing she and her fellow students agree on, she said: The student representative deserves a vote on the committee.
“We go through all these processes becoming elected to [Boston Student Advisory Council] and then to student rep on School Committee,” said Mercer, a 12th grader at the Henderson Inclusion School. “To not get a vote, I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of our time, because we do get a voice and input, but … It does kind of seem like it’s just a performance in a way.”
Several councilors have voiced support for giving the student representative a vote on the committee. That could mean the committee would need to add a ninth member, though, to avoid holding 4-4 votes without a winner.