Former mayor of Methuen; author of “The Value of Political Capit$l”; former executive director of the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission
Massachusetts has a long tradition of providing school committees relative independence from local government in managing the education of our children. But over time the role of the school committee has changed. The 1980 Proposition 2½ law eliminated its fiscal autonomy. The 1993 Education Reform Act took even more authority from it, transferring executive powers like hiring and firing to the school superintendent. The school committee still has policy-making duties, but in my experience and observation, its primary role today is to hire, fire, and advise the superintendent.
The only question now is who is the best entity to carry out this role. Should it be an elected school committee where the only qualification is to be an 18-year-old resident of the community? Or should it be an appointed school committee where the appointing authority can set education and experience qualifications, review resumes, check references, and select candidates who are capable of providing meaningful feedback to the superintendent?
Boston is currently debating this issue, but I think it is one that can apply to all our public school districts.
Finding qualified candidates to run for an elected school committee can be challenging. In the last three election cycles in my hometown of Methuen, there has not been a competitive school committee race. In each case, the number of candidates has been equal to or less than the number of seats available. How do voters choose which person is the best candidate to provide this role if there aren’t even competing candidates to choose from?
The only productive choice is an appointed school committee. Giving the mayor or select board power to choose the members will help ensure those who serve bring professional skills and expertise to the role while also guarding against politics interfering in the committee’s work.
If people feel strongly about the need for elected school leaders, I would propose that the school committee be eliminated and its duties assumed by the city council or select board. These elected bodies would be able to approach their overall responsibilities with a broad view of the needs for both sides of government. They would still carry out the mostly advisory role but with fiscal responsibilities that today’s school committees lack.
Vice chair, Lawrence School Committee; Steering Committee member, Greater Lawrence Education Justice Alliance
Across the Commonwealth, we must protect democracy and ensure that our elected school committees remain chosen by the people. These committees, whose members are our neighbors, should not be effectively taken away and given to executive officers.
When school committee members are elected, it encourages and enables citizens to hold them accountable. But with an appointed board, the only accountability is between the member appointed and the official who appointed them to that leadership position. It is not news that those appointed are more likely to adhere to the values and be loyal to those who have placed them in power. By contrast, those elected locally by the people are more likely to uphold their commitments to the voters who have given them the opportunity to serve our young people.
We tend to forget that elected school committee members are from the communities they represent, giving them a strong incentive to always advocate for policies that assist our next generation of local and state leaders. Boston became the only appointed school committee in Massachusetts in 1992, deciding that would bring positive change to its schools. But many in the city believe it has reduced opportunities for transparency, accountability, and the ability to sway policy. There is currently a call to action to return this appointed school committee to an elected body, to ensure the voices of all community members matter.
Local residents should be able to hold their school districts accountable by choosing leaders who will geographically and ethnically represent them, to bring to the table those they believe understand the particular needs of their local public schools. That’s true in Boston, but also in Lawrence, where some are calling for an appointed school committee.
Having an elected school committee is a critical part of addressing the various challenges facing an educational system, as members are always looking for community participation and feedback. The solution to a school system that needs to grow is having officials that will advocate for the community and ensure everyone’s voices are heard. By standing fast against the idea of appointed school committees, local leaders can show they understand this responsibility to be stewards of their communities and their moral duty to serve their neighbors.
As told to Globe correspondent John Laidler. To suggest a topic, please contact email@example.com.
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