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Council hears case for elected school committee

Activists say current body votes against parents’ interests

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1990 and has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Council hears case for elected school committee
NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha Sullivan testifies during a city council hearing on the merits of an elected school committee. Looking on are parent activist Mary Battenfeld, Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts President Edith Bazile, Boston Education Justice Alliance Executive Director Ruby Reyes and NAACP Education Committee Chairman Jose Lopez. BANNER PHOTO

Depending on whom you listen to, an elected Boston School Committee would return democratic control of the schools to parents or return corruption and political chaos to the school department.

City councilors heard a multitude of perspectives during a hearing held last week by Education Committee Chairwoman Annissa Essaibi-George that probed the ideal structure for the school committee.

“The guiding question here is whether another governing structure could lead to more accountability for actions of our school committee members and whether we should have that mechanism here in Boston,” said Jose Lopez, who heads the NAACP Boston Branch’s education committee.

City Councilors Matt O’Malley, Annissa Essaibi-George and Tim McCarthy listen to testimony. BANNER PHOTO

City Councilors Matt O’Malley, Annissa Essaibi-George and Tim McCarthy listen to testimony. BANNER PHOTO

Limited participation

Lopez said participation of parents and stakeholders in the decision-making process around schools is currently limited to the two-minute blocks allotted for testimony during school committee meetings and through voting for the mayor who appoints school committee members.

Lopez’s comments underscored a common complaint among opponents of the current structure — that parents, students and community members are limited in their ability to debate BPS policy with committee members and that the committee itself has little accountability to anyone other than the mayor.

Critics of the mayor-appointed committee cited the body’s December 2017 vote to change school start times, which Mayor Martin Walsh withdrew within weeks amid fierce parent protest; the forced departure of former superintendent Tommy Chang and the summary appointment of interim Superintendent Laura Perille — decisions in which the school committee appeared to have little say.

Boston Education Justice Alliance Executive Director Ruby Reyes pointed to the committee’s upcoming vote on closing the West Roxbury Education Complex.

“On December 19, they will vote, most likely to close West Roxbury and disperse students wherever BPS says they have first choice, when their choice is to remain together,” she said. “Why? Because they almost always vote to unanimously pass whatever is put before them. That is in essence what is flawed about an appointed school committee.”

While Reyes and others noted that the current school committee members may genuinely care about the students in the system’s 126 schools, the argued that school committee members appointed by the mayor are neither accountable to, nor responsive to, the needs of the system’s students and parents.

Troubled history

Arguing against a return to an elected body, former City Councilor Larry DiCara pointed to the dysfunctional dynamics of the committee in the 1970s and 1980s.

“The ’70s were not a good decade for the Boston School Committee,” DiCara said. “Two members of the school committee went to jail, others were indicted but not convicted, the School committee positioned themselves to bring about a court order that brought about the desegregation of our schools. They violated law, plain and simple.”

DiCara said that even with a shift from a seven-member at-large body, with all members elected city-wide to a hybrid body with four at-large seats and nine neighborhood district seats, the dynamics of the council did not improve, calling it an “abysmal disaster.”

Boston Municipal Research Bureau President Samuel Tyler, noting he advocated for the abolition of the elected body in 1992, said an appointed committee renders the mayor accountable for the schools.

“For the past 25 years the appointed committee has proven to be more educationally focused, fiscally responsible and better able to tackle important, but politically difficult issues than the record demonstrated by either the seven-member or 13-member elected school committees,” he said.

Mayoral accountability

But NAACP’s Lopez argued that municipal elections don’t give parents of BPS students a viable means for holding the mayor accountable, noting that many voters don’t have children in BPS schools.

Mary Battenfeld, a member of the parent group Quality Education for Every Student, said recent decisions by the school committee have convinced her of the importance of an elected body.

“After so many years of seeing the people closest to the pain shut out of any decisions affecting our children, of watching helplessly as the Boston School Committee makes choices that go against the clearly expressed wishes and best interests of families and students… I’m firmly in favor of Boston joining the 98 to 99 percent of the rest of the country in allowing our community to elect the people who take care of our schools, and through them, our children,” she said.

Many of those who spoke said they have not decided whether they would advocate for a return to an elected body, but said the conversation is worth having.

“Our position is that the time is now for us to have an open and transparent conversation as a city about what is the best governance structure for our school committee that will lead to the outcomes that we want to see for our children,” said NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha Sullivan.

Short-term reforms

District 1 City Councilor Lydia Edwards urged advocates to explore factors such as how re-drawing district lines might affect an elected body, whether term limits make sense, whether seats should be limited to parents, whether seniors in high school should be allowed to vote and whether the school budget should be subject to participatory budgeting — allowing Boston residents to weigh in.

Essaibi-George, who has not taken a position on whether the school committee should be elected or appointed, noted that returning to an elected body would require changing the city charter and putting a vote before the state Legislature, a time-consuming process. She asked a panel, including representatives from the NAACP, the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and Quality Education for Every Student, for suggestions on improvements that could be made to the appointed body.

Sullivan pointed to the panel that nominates people to the school committee, noting that few people know who they are.

She also noted that under the current structure, the school committee’s responsibilities include hiring, evaluating and, when necessary, terminating the superintendent, as well as to set the policies for the district. That, currently, is not happening, she said.

“One of the other things that could change, is for the school committee to do its job,” she said. “And that is to act as an independent body and make decisions that are in the best interests of the children, families and educators. And as was mentioned on this panel, time and time again, what we hear in testimony from school committee members is how painful the decisions are that they’re making, how much they don’t agree with the decisions that they’re going to make, and yet they cast votes contrary to their interests and their beliefs all the time.”

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