“We got a clear mandate from the people of Boston to say what they want,” said Councilwoman Lydia Edwards, who supports an elected committee.
Proponents of the appointment system argue that the city has an interest in having one person – the mayor – directly responsible for schools and who helps keep politics out of education. But critics say the current system is highly political and voters deserve to choose their own school leaders and hold them accountable for campaign promises. Others support a hybrid model that has elected members and appointed members.
The Boston School Board became the state’s only appointed board in 1992, three years after voters narrowly passed a nonbinding referendum to name the board. At the time, communities of color and the NAACP opposed the measure, but then-mayor Raymond Flynn and others were frustrated by the dysfunction and antics of an elected committee, which ran up annual budget deficits while school performance suffered.
Now, some critics of the current system are pointing to recent controversies involving school board members, including three who quit after making racially insensitive remarks, and a student representative who quit because he felt district leaders had ignored student concerns. The NAACP, the Boston Education Justice Alliance and other education equity advocates have fought to build support for an elected school board.
At a school committee meeting on Wednesday night, several members said they disagreed with the outcome of the ballot initiative but respected voters’ wishes. They said they plan to stay committed to their school improvement mission and not get sidetracked by the process.
“It’s definitely lit a fire that the public is saying we need to focus on and we really need to address these long-standing issues,” committee member Ernani DeAraujo said.
Councilor Julia Mejia, who supports a fully elected school board, said she believes most council members — including newly elected ones taking office in January — support either an elected body or a hybrid body. She said she believes elected members will especially empower communities of color that have felt neglected for too long.
“Anything that empowers people is going to help,” Mejia said. “The actual representation and accountability would change because you’re now electing someone who shows up on a platform.”
Next, the effort heads to the Boston City Council, where Councilors Mejia and Ricardo Arroyo have already introduced a measure called the Bylaws Petition to restore an elected body. Mejia said they now plan to convene a task force to hear from the public and opinion leaders on the optimal size and structure of the committee.
The council would then vote on the self-government petition. Then the petition would then go to the mayor for approval, before heading to the State House, where the House and Senate would both vote. Finally, the governor will have to sign it.
“Then we will have served justice,” Mejia said. She declined to estimate a timeline for the process given power transitions and the many competing priorities of the council and the State House.
Mejia said she hopes the task force will help address some people’s concerns about an elected school board, such as campaigns funded by financial interests or elected members not representing their constituents.
Mayor-elect Michelle Wu said she supports a majority-elected hybrid school board.
But some city councilors want to keep a majority of the committee under the mayor’s control.
Councilor Frank Baker said he thinks having the mayor in control of the school council helps keep decision-making efficient and apolitical, although he argues that some members are elected by the residents.
“It was difficult for the [elected] school committee at the time to make an actual decision,” Baker said. “It will be about politics, it won’t be about schools, that’s my fear.”
But Edwards said Boston voters deserve more power.
“We are not looking for who to blame; we want to directly shape the way schools operate,” Edwards said. “We are more informed as an electorate than we have ever been before, so I’m not worried about elected people being just hacks.”
Xyra Mercer, the student representative on the Boston school committee who is elected by other student leaders, said she isn’t convinced the other committee members should be elected or appointed. But one thing she and her fellow students agree on, she says: the student representative deserves a vote on the committee.
“We go through all these processes to become elected [Boston Student Advisory Council] then to the student representative on the school committee,” said Mercer, a Grade 12 student at Henderson Inclusion School. “To not get a vote, I wouldn’t say it’s a waste of time, because we have a voice and a contribution, but… It seems like it’s just a performance in a way.”
Several councilors expressed support for giving the student representative a vote on the committee. This could mean the committee should add a ninth member, however, to avoid holding 4-4 votes with no winner.
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.