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Here’s why Boston doesn’t have an elected school committee

A new proposal to return to the days of an elected School Committee has reignited a long-simmering debate.

Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, shown here in 1989, pushed through a controversial proposal converting the Boston School Committee from a board elected by voters to one appointed by the mayor.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

If City Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia have their way, Boston will soon embark on an emotional, high-stakes conversation: Who should control the Boston Public Schools?

Three decades ago, Boston became one of the first major cities in the United States to give that control to the mayor. Ever since, the Boston School Committee has been made up solely of mayoral appointees. In other words, the mayor owns the schools.

Arroyo and Mejia want to change that. Their proposal, which they plan to bring before the City Council on Wednesday, calls for Boston to return to the days when its schools were overseen by an elected school board. An elected board, they say, would be more accountable to voters and families.

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Their idea enjoys wide support among city residents. Nearly 80 percent of Boston voters in a 2021 nonbinding referendum said they would prefer an elected board.

It’s not clear how viable Arroyo and Mejia’s proposal actually is, however. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu – who would have to approve the change – has been cool to the idea. But one thing is clear: The current debate has strong historical echoes. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, city officials, community leaders, and activists tussled over many of the same issues.

Here’s James Jennings, a veteran Boston-area professor with deep knowledge of city politics and the Boston Public Schools.

James Jennings: Parents are still disillusioned. I can tell you that parents are still disconnected. When you look at, still, academic achievement gaps; when you look at the lack of teacher diversity; when you look at the fact that you have schools in Boston that have no libraries, schools that have no swimming pools, schools where there’s no such thing as a cafeteria – hmm, these sound like the issues that we were facing 20, 30 years ago.

So how did we get here?

For most of the 20th century, the Boston School Committee consisted of five members, all elected at-large. That changed in 1984, when the committee ballooned to 13 members, representing nine districts across the city and four at-large seats. The idea was to give neighborhoods more representation.

Michael McCormack was a second-term city councilor at the time. He says the expanded School Committee soon “turned into a disaster.”

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Michael McCormack: There were a handful of good School Committee people who ran for the right reasons, but they were just a handful. The rest of them were scheming, plotting to run for City Council from the day they got elected. But in the process to do it, they became outrageous.

In 1989, Ray Flynn, the Boston mayor at the time, asked James Jennings, then the director of the William Monroe Trotter Institute for the Study of Black Culture at the University of Massachusetts Boston, to lead a commission on how to fix things.

Jennings’s group took testimony from 120 individuals and organizations, virtually all of whom expressed dissatisfaction with the School Committee structure. It was too big. It failed to promote parent participation, especially from underrepresented communities. Plus it didn’t answer to anyone.

James Jennings: Generally across the board parents felt like, you know, this body is not really representing the interests of my child. Just imagine making decisions with 13 people who are only beholden to their immediate constituents. And those immediate constituents are going to bring issues to the table, which either means there’s going to be deadlock or there will be compromises that are not based on pedagogy. And there was another dynamic as well: a lack of accountability to a vision, to a narrative about what our children really need.

So Jennings and his commission came up with two possible fixes. One, create a nine-member “hybrid” School Committee made up of both elected members and mayoral appointees. Or, have a smaller school board fully appointed by the mayor. Jennings says he was clear back then that neither option would magically fix Boston schools.

James Jennings: There’s a presumption there that governance can really make a difference, and governance can make a difference on some things. But governance is not a panacea. And we have proof of that right now because appointed or elected we still have some of the same issues.

After Jennings’s commission delivered its report, in July of 1989, it was clear that something had to change. But what that change looked like would ultimately be a matter of politics.

At the time, Ray Flynn was in his second term as mayor and looking at a school system in disarray: rundown facilities, recurring budget deficits, skyrocketing dropout rates, and a widening achievement gap. Flynn, according to his chief policy advisor Neil Sullivan, made addressing these challenges his top priority.

The problem was, under the elected School Committee, he couldn’t actually do much.

Neil Sullivan: We had made the decision going into the second term that the schools were, for us, in policy terms, the final frontier. In Boston, under the elected committee, the mayor was responsible for providing the money and the School Committee was responsible for spending the money. And if you look at any of the testimonies, news articles from the day, clearly the School Committee felt that the mayor wasn’t providing enough money and the mayor felt that the School Committee was getting the money and spending it ineffectively. And that’s a generous version of the dysfunction. Everyone agreed that the system was failing.

Flynn originally liked the idea of moving to a hybrid model for the School Committee, Sullivan says. But when that turned out to be politically infeasible, failing to win enough support with the City Council, the mayor backed a fully appointed school board instead.

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His decision, in 1989, sparked a heated debate.

Neil Sullivan: It was elected versus appointed, voting rights versus education reform. We certainly didn’t want to get in that conversation. From an organizer’s point of view, from a political point of view, you don’t set yourself up for that. And yet here we were: It was appointed or nothing, and nothing was ongoing dysfunction. So then it was, are we going to move forward with the appointed board or just let things continue to stagnate and deteriorate? And that’s a hard choice, but we didn’t have the luxury of inaction. Ray Flynn was the mayor of Boston.

But where Sullivan saw Flynn’s decision as a reluctant one, forced by circumstance, Dianne Wilkerson, an activist and attorney who worked closely with the Boston branch of the NAACP at the time, said many Black leaders saw something else. They believed Flynn’s move was nothing short of a power grab, intended to undermine the city’s growing Black political might.

Dianne Wilkerson: I use the word violent, like a snatching of a victory, because not only had we finally delivered real representation to the School Committee, but we literally had the best and the brightest. And so, none of us saw this as a coincidence. All we felt was complete and utter disrespect and racism.

It took a few years, a razor-thin victory in a citywide nonbinding referendum in 1989, and plenty of political maneuvering, but Flynn eventually saw his plan through.

In 1991, a home-rule petition to officially abolish the elected School Committee won the blessing of the City Council, the state Legislature, and the governor. The next year, Boston’s first mayoral-appointed School Committee took office. Bostonians haven’t voted for their school leaders since.

Wilkerson, who is currently organizing behind efforts to return to an elected school board, says the move was “a betrayal” – and one she believes has never lived up to its original promises.

Dianne Wilkerson: None of what was argued as the reason for this decision was ever realized. It didn’t increase parent and community engagement. It didn’t result in swift response to dilapidated buildings and materials. It didn’t improve an overall educational climate for any students other than those who were in the exam school. And that is the sadness of it.

Now, with Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia’s proposal before the City Council, Boston voters could once again get the chance to choose their School Committee members.

What do the other people who were around for the last elected school board think about that possibility?

Michael McCormack says don’t do it – that Boston schools only work if the mayor is in charge. Otherwise, nothing will ever get done.

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Michael McCormack: And if people are serious about improving Boston Public Schools other than just saying the words – put the pressure on the mayor.

Neil Sullivan says press pause on the governance debate – first, give Mayor Michelle Wu a chance. For the city to succeed in educating all its students, especially those from low-income families, he says, we have to mobilize the full power of the city government to address the root causes of poverty.

Neil Sullivan: We are lucky to have a system where the mayor can make such a commitment, and even luckier to have a mayor who has made such a commitment. Let’s give it two to three years.

James Jennings says it’s important to remember why Boston moved to an appointed committee in the first place – because parents felt cut out of the process. Thirty years later, he says, that’s still the case.

James Jennings: We have to really push the envelope on that. I don’t know that an appointed School Committee could do that. Maybe an elected School Committee could be more effective. But the missing piece in a lot of this is parents as learning partners, and that’s just not happening.


Jesse Remedios can be reached at jesse.remedios@globe.com. Follow him @JCRemedios.