Boston voters will be able to weigh in on a nonbinding referendum on Tuesday on whether the city should revert to an elected school board. Boston is the only traditional school system in the state where the school board is appointed by the mayor and one of the few nationally.
In many ways, advocates of an elected school board frame their position as a matter of civil rights. They aim to end disenfranchisement in communities of color whose children make up about 85% of Boston’s 51,000 public school students. They note that their push to elect the school board comes at a time when other places across the country, such as Georgia and Texas, are erecting barriers to voting.
“We are doing what we can here in Boston not just to protect the vote but to expand voting rights,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP. “We hope Bostonians make it clear on Tuesday that they want to expand voting rights and ensure Bostonians have the opportunity to select whoever they want on the school board.”
While the referendum is purely consultative, a victory at the polls could force the new mayor to relinquish control of the seven-member school committee. Public opinion polls showed overwhelming support for an elected school board, including a Suffolk/Globe/NBC10 poll in October with 69% favor.
It was a non-binding referendum, narrowly passed by voters in 1989, that ultimately led to the creation of the school committee appointed by the mayor. Former mayor Raymond Flynn was frustrated with the dysfunction and mad antics of the elected school board, which ran up annual budget deficits as the school system languished in poor performance.
Flynn, however, later regret expressed on change, which many communities of color had rejected and organizations like the NAACP had opposed.
The appointed school committee, which first met in 1992, was initially credited by many as bringing stability to the district, with two long-term superintendents serving under former Mayor Thomas M. Menino. But in recent years, the body has increasingly caused controversy beyond endorsing budget cuts and school closures and has also become mired in its own embarrassing missteps.
In the past year, two school committee chairs and another member resigned after making racially insensitive comments, while a student representative also resigned out of frustration that student concerns were not taken seriously. , among other problems. This summer, the school board was caught off guard after learning that Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’ educator license had expired a month after she extended her contract.
School board chair Jeri Robinson defended her board’s record of improving school programs and increasing public engagement.
“We have heard hours of public testimony and have changed our approach based on what we have heard,” she said in a statement. “The Committee opened our meetings to the public in an unprecedented way by translating all of our documents and providing real-time interpretation in eight languages and American Sign Language.”
The effort to disband the appointed school committee has so far met with little opposition. Organizations that have long championed mayoral control, such as the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and the Boston Foundation, declined to comment for this story.
But the landscape could change after voters elected a new mayor on Tuesday. Neither candidate, city councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George, supports a fully elected council. Wu favors an elected majority and the appointed remainder. Essaibi George prefers appointed counsel.
It’s also unclear how a newly elected city council might look at the issue, although movement is already underway in this chamber for an elected school committee. Earlier this fall, councilors Julia Mejia and Ricardo Arroyo submitted a bylaws petition to their colleagues to consider making such a change.
In an interview last week, Mejia said the language of the petition will be refined as the council consults with the community on the structure of an elected council, from the number of seats to whether members must be elected at large, by district or a combination of both. She said the change should make the school committee more responsive to the community.
“It will be much more difficult for the school committee to vote for things if it goes against the will of the people,” she said.
Any changes to school committee governance will require the approval of a home rule petition from the council, mayor, legislature, and governor. It’s unclear if voters will get another chance to officially weigh in after Tuesday’s vote.
Neil Sullivan, who was Flynn’s political adviser, wondered what political influence Tuesday’s vote might have. He criticized the question for only allowing voters to choose between a fully elected or fully appointed council and not a council that would mix the two approaches. He noted a Suffolk The University/Globe poll this summer found stronger support for the mixed option at 48%, compared to 39% for a fully elected board and 6% for an appointed board.
“It makes the referendum result meaningless from a public policy perspective and some might say it’s dishonest,” said Sullivan, who is now executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which works with schools in Boston on Youth Workforce Development.
But Tito Jackson, a former councilor with the Bostonians for an elected school board, said he couldn’t think of a reason to deny residents and ratepayers an elected school board.
“I would ask anyone, including those who have experienced desegregation in the city of Boston, why wouldn’t you want to enfranchise over 80% of families? [in the BPS] who are more diverse than at any other time in our city to have the opportunity to have a say in the future of the school district and their children,” he said.
James Vaznis can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.