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Why Change to an Elected School Committee Can’t Wait

Mary Battenfeld

Congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley began her Nov. 6 victory speech with a tribute to her mother, Sandra Pressley. Pressley proudly described her mother as a “super voter” who “made sure I knew that when we walked into that voting booth and we pulled that curtain, that we were powerful.”  Pressley’s election as the first African American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress testifies to that power.

But it’s power Boston Public Schools families — 86 percent of whom are Black, Latinx or Asian — are denied. Mayor Walsh appoints the seven-member Boston School Committee.

The mayor-appointed system began nearly 30 years ago after some admittedly dysfunctional times on the elected Boston School Committee. Yet that’s not the whole story. The successful home rule petition giving Boston’s mayor the power to appoint came after the Boston School Committee had been expanded and diversified. In disbanding the elected committee, Boston removed 60 percent of its black elected officials.

In fact, communities of color largely opposed an appointed school committee. When the Boston City Council voted 10-2 for an appointed board, the two ‘no’ votes were the two African American councilors —   Charles Yancey and Bruce Bolling. In the state Legislature, many black and Latinx representatives voted against the petition for an appointed board. An American University study of city referendums found “voters in predominantly black wards far more likely to oppose an appointed committee.” Hattie McGinnis, head of Boston’s Citywide Parent Council, advocated against an appointed board because it “gives complete control to the Mayor for whatever he wants to do.”

McGinnis’ warning is all too relevant today. Parents watch from the sidelines as Mayor Walsh and his appointed representatives make critical decisions about our children, our schools and our communities. Family engagement becomes “messaging” to get buy-in for already determined plans, rather than a genuine shared decision-making process.

Nowhere were the problems of an appointed school committee more evident than Dec. 19 at Boston Public Schools headquarters in Dudley Square. Students, parents, teachers and community members, as they had for weeks, called out institutional racism, and challenged the narrative that their schools were failing and needed to be closed. Tears often accompanied the testimony, sad proof that those pleading to keep their school communities open were, in Ayanna Pressley’s words, “the ones closest to the pain.” The school committee’s vote (5-0, with one abstention) to close West Roxbury and Urban Science Academy offered painful proof that students and families are not the ones closest to the power.

School committee members seemed genuinely moved by the stories, concerns and hopes of the West Roxbury Education Complex’s students, families and teachers. But they voted anyway to dash those hopes. I think that would not have happened if Boston had an elected school committee. Or if it did, they’d be accountable come election time.

The main arguments for an appointed system are that it takes politics out of decisions about Boston’s schools, and makes the mayor accountable. But in the time between mayoral elections, students can begin and graduate high school. Or not, because their high schools are closed, with neither the mayor nor accountability in evidence.

Politics, however, are very much present. No one gets and remains on the Boston School Committee without staying on the mayor’s good side. That’s politics in the negative sense of influence and patronage, rather than the positive power of voting. In a city school committee election, that electoral power could even be extended to 16- and 17-year-olds, or as San Francisco has done, by expanding voting rights to non-citizen parents.

Former member of Boston’s elected school committee and long-time METCO director Jean McGuire said, in explaining her opposition to an appointed school  committee, “It really concerns me that we would give up in Boston what we dumped tea in Boston Harbor for.” This was in 1996, and referring to the Bill Clinton campaign slogan, Dr. McGuire added, “It’s democracy, stupid.”

Democracy isn’t perfect, but disenfranchisement is far worse. It’s past time for Boston to return to an elected school committee. In convening a hearing last month on Boston Public Schools governance, City Council Education Committee Chair Annissa Essaibi-George took a first step. But we can’t stop there. As Congresswoman-elect Pressley reminds us, “Change can’t wait.”

Mary Battenfeld is a BPS parent and member of QUEST (Quality Education for Every Student).

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