Boston city leaders must return residents’ right to elect the School Committee after voters handed down that directive last month, several city councilors and advocates for the change argued Monday evening at the city’s first public hearing on the issue.
“We have a mandate,” said former appointed School Committee member Susan Naimark. “We need to listen to it. It can’t be much clearer than that.”
Last month, nearly 80 percent of Boston voters supported a nonbinding referendum proposing voters elect their School Committee members. Parents, students, advocates, and city councilors started to imagine Monday just what that would look like, how many members should be elected, and from where.
“There’s a desire for the School Committee to be accountable to the families in BPS,” said District 8 City Councilor Kenzie Bok as the hearing started. “The question is what’s the mechanism for that.”
Boston is the only nonelected school committee in the state and one of a handful around the country. Under the current rules, the mayor appoints the school board members.
Advocates pushing for the change to an elected body say the committee is unresponsive to parents, especially parents of color, rubber-stamping the mayor’s agenda and buffering City Hall from any real accountability for the quality of city schools or policies affecting students and parents.
Supporters of maintaining the appointed school committee worry that private money supporting special interests might influence elections and school policies. Also, aspiring politicians may run for School Committee as a stepping stone to higher office, rather than a sincere interest in education.
The move to elect at least some School Committee members has powerful backers.
Newly elected Mayor Michelle Wu, at-large City Councilors Michael Flaherty, Erin Murphy, and Ruthzee Louijeune, and District 2 City Councilor Ed Flynn support electing at least some School Committee members. The Boston Teachers Union also supports an elected School Committee.
At-large City Councilor Julia Mejia and City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo sponsored an initiative called a home rule petition to return to an elected school committee.
“There’s a cry for more democracy, transparency, and accountability in city government,” Mejia said in an interview before Monday’s hearing. “This creates a vehicle for those things to be addressed.”
Mejia and Arroyo’s home rule petition has to be approved by the City Council and signed by the mayor before going to the State House, where the House and Senate would vote on it. If it gets that far, it would have to be signed by the governor to become law. Mejia said she wants to move the petition through “as quickly as humanly possible.”
Participants at the hearing spoke with the same urgency to change how the School Committee operates. Parents and teachers with experience contacting or speaking before the body said there was little response to their advocacy and concerns.
Suleika Soto, a mother of two children in Boston public schools, said she got involved in speaking before the School Committee three years ago when the district planned to cut funding at the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End. Parents secured a promise from the superintendent to build walls at the Blackstone, an open-concept school, but the walls have so far not materialized.
“There is no real way for us to hold the School Committee members accountable for what was promised and not given,” Soto said.
Neema Avashia, a longtime civics teacher at the former McCormack Middle School, which recently merged with the Boston Community Leadership Academy, said when her school reached out to the School Committee to advocate against selling the McCormack’s open fields to a local nonprofit, she was told school committees were barred from meeting individually with constituents. “There’s no outreach,” Avashia said. “No one is seeking to understand the issues before they vote.”
A mother from the Manning Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, where at least 18 people recently tested positive for COVID-19, called the need for an elected School Committee a “safety issue.” Bevin Kenney recently contacted School Committee members wanting help better understanding whether Boston public schools did everything it could to prevent the spread of the virus at their school, but it didn’t lead to any help or action. “It doesn’t seem like they even have a channel for addressing parent concerns,” she said.
City councilors had questions about the best way to structure an elected committee and how many of the seats should be elected citywide and how many should represent districts like city councilors do. Murphy argued for three at-large seats and the rest elected by districts. “Having just run citywide, I know how hard that is and how much money it takes,” she said.
If the city has an elected School Committee but doesn’t designate some seats as district representatives, it “could result in a whiter, wealthier School Committee,” said Beth Huang, executive director at the Massachusetts Voter Table, a nonprofit that works to increase voter turnout among low-income voters and people of color.
She pointed to the City of Lowell as a cautionary tale. After a 2017 federal lawsuit complaining that the citywide at-large elections for School Committee and City Council prevented Latino and Asian American residents from winning seats, the city was barred from using its citywide at-large electoral system.
During the first two and half hours of the hearing, only one speaker raised any challenging questions about changing the way school board members are chosen. Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a research organization focusing on Boston’s municipal government said the group wasn’t taking a position on the issue yet, but she warned that electing School Committee members might not “guarantee diversity” because elections tend to “reward those with the loudest voices and with the most resources behind them.”
But many advocates pushing for the change waved away such concerns, saying Boston has become a different city than it was when the School Committee became an appointed body in 1992. They said the move to an elected School Committee is a civil rights issue.
“This really is about restoring a voting right that was taken away,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. “But having an elected School Committee doesn’t make all of the problems go away. It’s a structure where we can, in a more engaged way, wrestle with the issues.”