Many Bostonians couldn’t dredge up the names of one or more members of the city’s mayorally appointed school committee. It’s a blessing in the sense that members of the old elected boards were only too well known — for acts of corruption and political chicanery. But the appointed board has its downside, too. It is far too quiet in its deliberations, given the high-stakes nature of public education in Boston. The board’s relationship with school leaders has been too cozy over the years. And the school committee is often perceived as a rubber stamp for the mayor.
More should be done to make the work of the appointed school board open and understandable to the public. But a proposal to require City Council approval of the mayor’s appointments isn’t one of them. District City Councilor Bill Linehan of South Boston is leading the city astray with his ill-conceived call for council “oversight and input’’ into the appointment of school board members.
During the 1990s, Bostonians endorsed the legislative and ballot initiatives needed to eliminate the 13-member elected school board and replace it with seven members appointed by the mayor. The changeover made the mayor directly accountable for the quality of the city’s schools. As hoped, the appointed boards focused on policies that led to higher student achievement and improved teaching practices. But the disconnect between the appointed school board and the public has grown over time.
Former school board member and current mayoral candidate John Barros rightly believes that no good purpose would be served by giving politically motivated city councilors power over the mayor’s selections. Instead, he argues for making the work of the school board more transparent. One way to do that, said Barros, is to create standing subcommittees on budget and curriculum that would include members of the public as well as committee members. Barros would also enlarge the school committee and authorize the student member of the board to vote. It’s a sound approach.
During his latter years in office, Mayor Menino has taken care to appoint more independent-minded members to the school committee. Mayoral candidates are promising to take the same approach. Allowing city councilors to exert power over the appointments would only create unnecessary political entanglements.
City councilors chafe under the city’s strong-mayor form of government, which largely limits their role to approving or rejecting the mayor’s budget. It would be a welcome development if more councilors stood up to the mayor as a way to sharpen the administration’s budget priorities. What’s not useful, however, is Linehan’s effort to use the academic futures of school children as a means to chip away at the power of the mayor.