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Boston City Council approves switch to elected School Committee — but the proposal may go no further

The Boston City Council, pictured here in December, approved switching to an elected School Committee.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Boston City Council in a split vote approved Wednesday afternoon a proposal to switch back to an elected School Committee, three decades after mayors were put in charge of appointing the district’s school board and a day after Mayor Michelle Wu reiterated her opposition to the change.

Council members passed the legislation, 7-5, with Councilor Kenzie Bok voting present. The bill, a petition to the state to change the city’s charter, needs the mayor’s signature to move forward.

Supporters of the bill, which would increase the number of members from seven to 13, argued it would bring democratic accountability to the city’s school system, putting an end to a committee that depends on the mayor to be appointed to their positions and simply rubber stamps decisions from City Hall.

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But Wednesday’s vote may be the end of the road for the bill: Wu has repeatedly indicated she does not think it’s the right time to make a change to the district’s governance, and the bill cannot move forward without her support. The legislation would strip Wu of much of her power over the district. Unlike on most matters, City Council has no ability to override a veto or otherwise force action on a petition to the state Legislature.

Supporters of the change plan to continue to pressure the mayor to take action. City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, who sponsored the bill with Councilor Julia Mejia, said he hoped a sufficiently overwhelming vote would help convince Wu to send the petition to the Legislature. But with the council’s lukewarm approval of the measure, that seems unlikely.

On the campaign trail, Wu said she supported a hybrid council with both elected and appointed members and, on the same day she was elected, Boston voters overwhelmingly supported an elected committee in a nonbinding referendum. But she cooled to the idea after taking office. And on Tuesday, she doubled down — opposing even a switch to a hybrid committee for the time being.

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“I have never been supportive of an elected School Committee,” Wu said Tuesday in response to a listener question on GBH News’ Boston Public Radio. “I’m not supportive of changing the governance structure at this time.”

Arroyo said once it gets to her desk, “that’s where the rubber really hits the road.”

After the vote, Wu’s spokesman Ricardo Patrón said the mayor in coming days would review the School Committee dockets voted on by the council and referred the Globe to her comments on Boston Public Radio.

Bok cited the lack of mayoral support among the reasons for her not voting in favor, alongside Bok’s own preference for a hybrid committee.

“When I think about legislative time, I think we need to start our engagement on home rule petitions from the perspective of, how do we as a council and the mayor get to yes together?” Bok said.

Mejia called on her colleagues to keep pushing for the petition even after passage.

“I want to ask my colleagues to do right and to consider voting in favor and then not just giving it to the mayor for her signature but then doing the work to make sure that it gets to the State House,” Mejia said.

Boston’s appointed committee is the only non-elected school board in the state, and the vast majority across the country also are elected bodies. Some other large districts, including Philadelphia and New York, have appointed school boards. Others have recently approved transitions to elected or hybrid school boards, such as Chicago and Providence respectively.

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In Boston, the School Committee is responsible for passing the district’s budget and hiring the superintendent.

The bill calls for four at-large members and nine district members. The measure would also include two non-voting student members. Council President Ed Flynn and members Frank Baker, Michael Flaherty, Erin Murphy, and Brian Worrell voted against it.

The elected body would be phased in over time, with the nine district members being elected in the first municipal election after passage — likely 2025 at the earliest — and the four at-large members remaining appointed until the following municipal election two years later.

The council easily passed a separate home rule petition, also needing mayoral and state approval, which would give voting rights to the two student members, contingent on having an elected board. That petition passed 11-2, with just Flynn and Baker opposed.

Boston’s School Committee has been appointed since 1992. The change came eight years after the committee had expanded from five citywide seats to 13, as in the current proposal. Then-Mayor Ray Flynn put together a commission to gather testimony on the committee, which heard from 120 people and organizations. Nearly all expressed dissatisfaction with the School Committee structure: It was too big; it failed to promote parent participation, especially from underrepresented communities; it didn’t answer to anyone. Some felt committee members were using the board as a steppingstone to the City Council or other higher office, with no interest in improving the schools.

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Flynn feuded with the committee over recurring budget deficits in the district, with widening achievement gaps and rising dropout rates to show for it.

So Flynn moved to replace the 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 a slim majority of voters approved the switch.

“The transition from an elected School Committee to an appointed School Committee was a direct response to that power that was being built by Black and brown communities in the city of Boston,” Councilor Kendra Lara said. “It was an attempt to disenfranchise. Voting for a return to an elected School Committee is not just a racial justice issue... but it’s also an issue of equity.”

Councilor Gabriela Coletta said today’s political reality has changed since the 1970s and ‘80s, and “we can trust that credible candidates will emerge.”

The current movement to return to an elected body is several years old, spearheaded by a coalition, Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, which counts the NAACP’s Boston branch, the Boston Teachers Union and the Boston Educators Justice Alliance among the groups on its steering committee.

“This is a civil rights wrong that Boston has waited 30 years to correct,” said Lisa Green of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee. “We are by no means planning to let this drop.”

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The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.