Is it time to return to an elected school board in Boston?

For 30 years, Boston’s mayor has exercised the power to appoint every member of the city’s school board. This power, unique to the state, was supposed to make the district more fluid and accountable by removing distractions from retail politics.

But now, in the midst of a very open mayoral race, some voters say the appointed committee has failed to deliver on its promise – and it’s time to turn the clock back.

On Monday, an advocacy group called the Boston Coalition for Education Equity launched a country to raise the question of a return to an elected committee on city ballots this fall, albeit in the form of a non-binding referendum.

City councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia filed an accompanying petition that would allow for a return to elections by 2026.

Arroyo – who has long supported the move – said the petition he and Mejia filed is a “placeholder” petition in response to the Coalition’s organizing work, designed to give the Council a “track” to implement the change if the measure passes and after a period of public input.

Once that work is complete, any final changes to the city charter will need to be approved by the full city council, both houses of the state legislature, and the governor. And, if history is any guide, his fate would also hinge on the leadership of the mayor.

A June poll released by Suffolk University and the Boston Globe found that more than 87% of voters want the chance to select at least some of the school committee members, with only 6% expressing support for the current, fully-appointed council.

“A lever of responsibility”

Like many parents, Kristin Johnson came to the Boston school board for the first time to denounce the budget cuts and underfunding of her child’s school.

But after several years, Johnson said she decided to tackle “the root of the problem” as she saw it: not a particular budget, but the appointed body that oversees and approves them.
It became an obsession: Johnson went back to college and delved into the archives to study the history of the committee. She says she hoped to fill the 15-year gap in public memory between the vicious fights over school desegregation in the mid-1970s and the move to an appointed committee 15 years later.

“What I found was a story of Black people organizing for political power in the city of Boston: remarkable people who worked for decades to get elected,” Johnson said. “Then as soon as they got a foothold in that layer of power in Boston, he was replaced by an appointed board.”

Jean McGuire, the first black woman elected to the committee, held her seat from 1981 until the elected committee was dissolved. She was part of a four-member black outspoken bloc calling for fairness and adequate funding. She still sees the change as a power grab that removed this group’s hard-earned influence and established a mayor’s monopoly on the district’s big budget.

Now 90, McGuire was one of 18 people – along with former councilman Tito Jackson, pastor Willie Bodrick II and more than a dozen parents, students and teachers – who signed the initial petition in favor of the ballot issue.

As she signed, McGuire said, “The sine qua non of citizenship is the right to vote. It’s your voice. Never give up on him.”

Jean McGuire signing the Boston School Committee election restoration petition. (Courtesy of Alain Jehlen/Boston Coalition for Education Equity)

“It’s a draw”

Then-Boston Mayor Ray Flynn first proposed a change to a committee appointed in 1989, telling the World that he was “fed up [with the elected body’s] constant apologies.”

At a press conference in August, Flynn — accompanied by parents and city council allies — asked voters to “step up and join this grassroots effort…so we can bring greater professional accountability.” to the city’s public school system.

Today, Flynn defends the move as a reasonable response to the volatile situation he inherited: a money-losing neighborhood from which thousands of white families had fled faces annual and acrimonious struggles over its budgets.

Flynn says the elected committee has come to be seen as “a stepping stone to higher political office” for too many of its members. “I don’t want high profile people on the school board,” he said. “I thought I could find people who worked in the neighborhoods, people who are a bit idealistic about the importance of public education.”

Tom O’Reilly – who served as chairman of the elected committee – says the city had many of these idealistic citizens on that body before it disbanded. He is proud of their efforts to limit corruption and clientelism, to revamp the school department, and to appoint the district’s first-ever black superintendent in Laval Wilson. (The committee also votes to fire Wilson five years later.)

“I think it was a mistake to go from elected to appointed. It allowed the school board to have a buffer between them and the community — and, maybe, who they represented changed,” said O’Reilly, who later served as president of Pine Manor College, who mainly recruited low-income students. of Boston and other nearby cities before closing, and is now being gradually integrated into Boston College.

Boston Mayor Ray Flynn speaks to an 8th grade reading class at Thompson Middle School in Boston September 14, 1989. He visited the school to inspect renovations and urge students to avoid drugs.  (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Boston Mayor Ray Flynn speaks to an eighth grade reading class at Thompson Middle School in Boston on September 14, 1989. (Photo by Bill Greene/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In 1992, the city’s first-ever appointed committee—chosen by Flynn—was the most diverse ever, including future alderman Felix D. Arroyo and George Joe, the body’s first-ever Asian member.

But just before stepping down a year later to become U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, Flynn wrote that his school reform efforts had “stalled” and told the Boston Globe he was supportive. a return to an elected five-member board of directors to be chaired by the mayor.

Now 82, Flynn remains ambivalent about the two systems being considered. “It’s a draw,” he said, speaking as the former basketball star. “It all depends on who a mayor would appoint,”

Problems arise, he says, if mayors decide to appoint political allies or with an expectation of deference: “They [should] want to be judged on the basis of independence and the voice of students and parents.”

Flynn praised the recent appointment by Acting Mayor Kim Janey of Rafaela Polanco Garcia, a parent-organizer and the first member of the body to speak primarily in Spanish. He also expressed his interest in a hybrid committee: partly elected and partly appointed.

“Delete the policy”, or not?

Domingo Morel, a political scientist at Rutgers University’s Newark campus, says Boston wasn’t alone in wanting to depoliticize education in the closing decades of the 20th century. City leaders were participating in a national zeitgeist.

“It’s exactly like that [the argument] seems, at every level, across cities, and across time: that we can do better by removing the school operations policy,” Morel said. (Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and New York made similar moves toward appointed councils during June 11, Illinois state lawmakers vote to restore a partially elected council in Chicago.)

As a political scientist, Morel is skeptical of the fundamental logic of this statement: “You are not remove the policy – you’re just transferring power from one aspect of the policy to another.”

While researching “Takeover,” his study of outside interventions in city school districts, Morel says he discovered that when appointed committee members are particularly outspoken, “they become marginalized within the board. — an observation some made of committee member Regina Robinson after Mayor Marty Walsh failed to reappoint him in 2019.

Morel thinks parents — especially parents of color — need to feel empowered in school governance for this to work, and thinks elections best serve that purpose. But he admits they aren’t perfect – for example, they can easily attract outside money or revive “unsavory” parts of neighborhood politics.

And, he notes, they alone will not bring inclusion or accountability to the school leadership. Only mobilized and organized citizens can do this.

“These places of power and politics, they change, and you have to stay vigilant,” Morel said. “The work of democracy is messy…and there is simply no shortcut.”

Five major candidates are vying to become Boston’s next mayor. Here is some of what they say they will do as mayor to make Boston’s school board more representative and accountable:
John Barros

  • “Consider” how to set up a partially elected and partially appointed (or hybrid) committee.
  • Establish standing subcommittees for students, parents, and other community members on budget, academics, community engagement, and education equity.
  • Add an additional student seat to the committee and provide student members with voting rights and a stipend.

Andrea Campbell

  • Set up a hybrid school committee.
  • Give voting rights and stipend to student representatives.
  • Name members who can “really listen and engage” with families.

Annissa Essaibi George

  • No change in member selection, as “our schools no longer need politics in them”, but appoint members representing English learners, students with disabilities, teachers and families.
  • Allow the mayor to appoint five members and the city council to appoint four members, including a student and a parent, while subject to a public process.
  • Give student representatives voting rights and an allowance.

Kim Janey

  • Explore a hybrid committee while preserving “a direct line of responsibility with the mayor”.
  • Appoint more representative members of the organization.
  • Add youth members and give all student members the right to vote.

Michelle Wu

  • Set up a “majority elected” school committee, with a few appointed members to focus on early childhood, school facilities and vocational training.
  • Give student members the right to vote.
  • Organize a transparent community process for new appointees.