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Mayor Michelle Wu vetoes elected School Committee bill

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu's rejection of the bill is a reversal of the support she had given for a hybrid, partially-elected School Committee while she was on the campaign trail.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Mayor Michelle Wu on Friday vetoed a bill to switch to an elected School Committee, two days after the City Council approved the proposal.

The bill, a petition to the state to change the city’s charter, needed the mayor’s signature to move forward. Unlike on other matters, the City Council has no ability to override a veto or to force action on a petition to the state Legislature.

In a letter to the council, Wu said transitioning to a new governance model could risk instability in Boston Public Schools.

”I deeply respect that the proponents of this proposal are motivated by a commitment to supporting Boston’s young people — a commitment I share with urgency,” Wu wrote in her letter. “Respectfully, I cannot support legislative changes that would compromise our ability to stabilize and support the Boston Public Schools during this critical period.”

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The bill would have stripped Wu of much of her power over the district. The School Committee, which is appointed by the mayor, is responsible for passing the district’s budget and hiring the superintendent.

On the campaign trail, Wu said she supported a hybrid, partially-elected School Committee. But she cooled to the idea after taking office, saying it was not the time to change the governance model. And a day before the council vote, she doubled down — opposing even a switch to a hybrid committee for the time being.

Council members passed the legislation, 7-5, with Councilor Kenzie Bok voting present. Supporters of the bill, which would have increased 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. They also said they were following through with the will of the people, after voters overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding measure last fall to change the appointed school board into an elected body.

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“Every Councilor, including those who voted present or against this [petition], are unanimous in the belief that the current appointed School Committee model needed to be changed so a veto is disappointing,” lead sponsor Councilor Ricardo Arroyo said in a statement. “I know all of us, the Mayor included, are united in making our public schools the best in the country and I do believe a governing change to the School Committee would help us get closer to that goal while empowering our school families and stakeholders.”

The bill called for four at-large members and nine district members, phased in over time. The measure also called for adding two non-voting student members.

Wu is signing a separate state petition that would give student members of the School Committee voting rights, her office said Friday. But that petition is contingent on approving a switch to an elected School Committee, according to the bill language, so it will have no effect even if approved by the state.

Lisa Green, chair of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, said her group is not letting the issue go, despite the setback, as 99,000 voters “demanded an end to mayoral control of Boston schools.”

“The mayor today confirmed that she refuses to be held accountable to those voters, saying now is not the time,” Green said in a statement. “We are scheduling a meeting of our steering committee and the new organizations who have reached out to join us this week to discuss potential next steps, including a possible binding ballot referendum.”

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Boston’s appointed committee is the only nonelected 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.

In Boston, School Committee 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.

In her letter, Wu outlined her plans to improve the district, including a $2 billion building program and changes to instruction for students with disabilities and those who are not fluent in English. Boston’s schools have a new superintendent, Mary Skipper, and since last spring have been operating under a threat of state takeover, after a state report described the district’s “entrenched dysfunction” and “systemic disarray” in withering detail.

“I am confident that BPS is on the cusp of the kind of transformative change that our students, families, and educators have been demanding for decades,” Wu wrote. “I am determined to sustain this momentum, and believe that a dramatic overhaul of our selection process for the Boston School Committee would detract from the essential work ahead.”

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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.