On the campaign trail last year, Mayor Michelle Wu said she’d be open to turning a majority of the Boston School Committee’s seats into elected positions. And on the same day she was elected, voters went even further, signaling overwhelming support for a transition back to a fully elected committee.
But now Wu is indicating she has no immediate appetite for remaking the School Committee as the district works to meet the requirements of a state-mandated improvement plan.
“In this moment, I am not for moving to an entirely new governance structure,” she said in an interview with The Boston Globe.
Wu said her administration is instead focused on “urgent challenges” that need immediate action, including improving school facilities, providing robust academic and emotional services for students following pandemic disruptions, and addressing BPS staffing shortages.
The City Council started discussing a plan for a transition to an all-elected committee months ago, but it’s still working out some of the details. The plan would need the approval of the mayor, the Legislature, and the governor.
Advocates for an elected School Committee say the mayor’s reluctance to advance the issue is a betrayal of Bostonians’ trust.
“I feel like she’s not listening to the voters. It’s a mandate,” said Suleika Soto, an organizer with Boston Education Justice Alliance. “More people voted for this than voted for her, so I feel like it’s very frustrating that she has not moved on this.”
Currently, the mayor appoints all seven members of the School Committee from a group of candidates recommended by a nominating panel. This dynamic, elected committee supporters say, renders committee members little more than mouthpieces for Wu.
“There’s no way to hold [an appointed School Committee] responsible, and there’s no responsiveness from them, no matter how much we speak out against things,” said Soto, a mother of two BPS students.
Wu, who also has two children in the public schools, said she believes parents’ voices are imperative to school improvement.
“We’ve worked to really dig in on some of our processes for how outreach happens in conversations and decision making about schools,” she said. “And we need the feedback and input of our families in everything that we do.”
Boston is the only municipality in the state that does not elect its School Committee. Its members have been appointed since 1992, when then-Mayor Ray Flynn, tired of the infighting and dysfunction of previous Boston school committees, replaced elected members with his own appointees.
The move was controversial then — many constituents of color and the NAACP Boston Branch saw the shift to an appointed committee as a form of disenfranchisement — but Flynn was emboldened by a slim majority of voters who had approved the switch in a nonbinding referendum three years earlier.
Advocates for an elected committee say that now, with municipal elections less than a year away, city officials should hasten to move forward with the transition.
“Voters expect to be able to vote for their representatives on the School Committee in 2023,” said Lisa Green of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee.
City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, lead sponsor of the legislation to create a fully elected School Committee, agrees, and said he hopes the council can vote on the measure by Dec. 14, the final day of the current legislative session. Arroyo acknowledged, however, that some of the details still need to be ironed out. That could push the vote into the New Year, which may make it infeasible to hold the first School Committee elections next November.
A crucial unsettled question, Arroyo said, is the refashioned committee’s size. The council is weighing whether to expand the school panel from seven to 13 members, whose jurisdictions would reflect the makeup of the City Council (nine district seats and four citywide seats), or to find a number in between.
There is also a strong possibility the School Committee’s nonvoting student member, who is elected by district students, would be given a vote. Arroyo said the proposed change has strong support among the councilors. Wu has said, and reiterated in the interview, that she would “absolutely” support a voting student member.
The councilors are still debating whether and how much the student member should be paid. Currently, School Committee members receive a $7,500 annual stipend.
Arroyo said the council’s willingness to consider a hybrid school board compromise “depends on the number of appointed seats.”
“[It’s] not outlandish to have the mayor as a member of the committee, or the mayor’s representative,” he said. “But I think if we get into a situation where we’re talking about almost an even split . . . then I would have some severe concerns about that.”
Paul Reville , a professor of educational policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said returning to an elected School Committee represents people trying to assign “a simple solution to a complex problem.”
“I like the mayoral control because it gives some coherency to the system,” said Reville, a former state secretary of education. “People feel out of control, and they want to go back to another system, but I would argue they were no more in control then and voters didn’t turn out in large numbers to elect members to the School Committee.”
Others argue an appointed model keeps divisive culture war politics, which have crept into local school boards in recent years, out of Boston, and streamlines decision-making.
Appointed committee advocates also believe the current model stops big-money candidates from having undue influence over schools and discourages the politically ambitious from using the School Committee as a steppingstone to larger offices.
But Green said the opposition has it backward — an appointed committee is much more vulnerable to political influence because it’s entirely controlled by the city’s most powerful politician.
“The way it’s been in Boston for the past 30 years, what the mayor wants, the mayor gets,” she said.
Green also said she doesn’t “think it’s a bad thing” if “the School Committee is an entry point into politics” because opportunities to elect municipal officials in the city are slim.
She thinks electing School Committee members to districts will reduce the influence of money in races, because candidates will have more incentive to connect with specific communities.
Like her predecessors thirty years ago, NAACP Boston president Tanisha Sullivan believes the right to elect a School Committee is “an issue that is deeply rooted in voting rights and access.”
“We firmly believe that whenever we have the opportunity to strengthen the democratic process, we should do so,” said Sullivan. “Giving the citizens of Boston an opportunity to choose for themselves who they want to govern our public schools is something that we think is critically important.”