Boston’s huge vote for elected school board puts Mayor Wu at odds with majority opinion

When Boston Public School teacher Neema Avashia watched as the school committee donated open green space next to her John W. McCormack Middle School in Dorchester for development despite pleas from students, of teachers and neighbors who used it for recreation, she suspected the days of the mayor-appointed school board were drawing to a close.

“I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this on-the-ground vote really put a nail in the coffin of the appointed school committee,” Avashia told GBH News of the August 2020 decision. “Because that it was really dirty and it wasn’t just dirty for people in our school – it was dirty for people in the city of Boston.”

That vote, Avashia said, was emblematic of how an unelected body, with no electorate to answer to, can flout community concerns.

Avashia is part of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, the advocates who provided an overwhelming affirmative answer to the November ballot question asking whether the Boston School Board should return to being an elected body.

The upcoming debate over school council membership will play out in full in 2022. The action will be between Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who favors the so-called hybrid model, which would mix elected members with her appointees, and the new city council. .

The contest will be a test of political will and maneuver. The council would have a hard time sending a Bylaws petition to Beacon Hill without Wu’s support.

In November, nearly 80% of Boston voters — more than the 64% who sent Wu to the mayor’s office — backed a return to an elected school board.

Throughout his campaign, Wu consistently championed a hybrid committee.

“The [November] question was as blunt as possible,” said Ricardo Arroyo, councilor for Hyde Park-Mattapan and one half of the duo who put the question to the ballot. “When you get 80%, it’s very hard for me to say that the people of Boston haven’t made their views known on that.”

At the same time, Arroyo said, a house rules petition like the one he is finalizing needs the mayor’s blessing to move from City Hall to the State House.

The committee became an appointed body for the first time in 1991, two years after an advisory vote question passed by a narrow margin and sparked the change. Boston is the only municipality in the state where voters do not elect their school board.

Earlier this month, Arroyo and At-Large Councilor Julia Mejia initiated the public engagement process to finalize the petition to reorganize the Boston school board. The hearing lasted nearly three hours, with dozens tuned in to urge the council to fulfill the mandate set out by the November results.

But, Arroyo said, this petition must clear the entire council, the mayor, the legislature and the governor to be signed into law.

“If we do something collaboratively, if the will is there, if the voices of the community are there, if the advisors are there, I believe we will end up with something that is productive and something that everyone is happy with.”

Ricardo Arroyo, Councilor of Hyde Park-Mattapan

“If the administration does not send it to the [state] house, then it’s not happening,” he said, pointing to the likelihood of a “back and forth” between the mayor, the new city council and members of the public who show up to defend the issue. .

Arroyo’s petition will need to be reformulated during the council’s next term, but for now, it is gradually moving the existing seven-member school board to a fully elected 13-member body by 2026, with a hybrid term. two years in between. . It also gives voting rights to the student committee member.

“I think if we do something collaboratively, if the will is there, if the voices of the community are there, if the advisors are there, I believe we will get something productive and something that everyone is satisfied,” Arroyo said.

Most of the elected school committee supporters interviewed for this article said they would be disappointed, but not devastated, if Wu insisted on keeping one, or even a few appointed seats on the school committee.

“I voted for Michelle Wu knowing that we disagreed on this issue and knowing that we would advocate moving her to a fully elected school committee after she was elected,” said Lisa Green, President of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity. “So that’s what our coalition plans to do over the next few weeks.”

Green pointed to former President Barack Obama’s evolving stance on the issue of same-sex marriage. Obama, who was first elected in 2008, did not give him his full support until 2012.

“As a lawyer, you will never be in perfect alignment with a candidate. You make your best choice on Election Day knowing that you will have to continue to pressure them on issues that matter to you,” said Green. .

“With an elected school council, we hope that these elected representatives will actually have a constituency that they represent…” she added, “and they will be inspired to reach out to the community and hear from them. interested because they want to be re-elected next time.”

“As a parent, I’m definitely sick of the experimental governance structures with the Boston School Committee,” said Kristin Johnson of Jamaica Plain, one of the BPS parents behind the ballot issue. “I think we really know that elected school committees are the gold standard.”

Johnson said she agrees with “much” of Wu’s vision for schools, but ultimately would prefer a fully elected body.

“I think of the [school committee] issue as an opportunity to have a really serious conversation in our city about governance. »

Neema Avashia, Boston Public School teacher

Former Boston School Committee student member Khymani James agreed, echoing the concerns of officials who make policy without being accountable to voters.

“I think Mayor Wu, while she may have her own personal views on the structure of the school committee, she needs to put that aside and she needs to listen to what the voters want,” he said. . “If question 3 said ‘do you support a hybrid school committee’ and a majority of voters voted ‘yes’…that would be fine with me…but in that case a majority of voters voted to have a elected school committee.”

James served on the school committee from September 2020 to March 2021. He resigned, citing in a Twitter feeda “blatant disrespect”, “adultist rhetoric” towards him, and an overall structure he found “ineffective” and “harmful to the students’ progressive agenda”.

He said of his tenure that he felt the goals and policies he advocated conflicted with those of his appointed colleagues because “there was no vertical accountability between the people and my fellow school board members at the time.”

James added that he believes student members should be on equal footing with adult members in all respects, including pay, a vote and time to weigh in on items at public meetings.

Wu declined an interview with GBH News for this story, but his team provided a statement signaling that they intend to insist on reserving multiple seats for mayoral nominations.

“I will work with councilors throughout the petition process for the bylaws that my colleagues have already begun,” Wu’s statement said. of Boston’s diversity and unique expertise, I look forward to working with those advocating for greater democracy in the governance of our school by including elected members on the school board.”

Avashia, who made an appearance in Wu’s mayoral campaign announcement video, said that while this is an area where she is on the other side of the mayor, she will not stop. to support Wu due to a disagreement over the structure of the school committee.

“I think, for me, what the vote tells me is what I already knew: people don’t agree with the current way of doing things,” Avashia said, adding that it’s important that the majority of school council seats are elected through a democratic process. . “That doesn’t mean we have to move on to another path without exploring and playing all the possibilities.”

“I don’t know what the right model is,” she continued. “I think of the [school committee] issue as an opportunity to have a really serious conversation in our city about governance. »