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Councilors weigh in on School Committee

Ballot question laid groundwork for transition to elected body

Avery Bleichfeld
Councilors weigh in on School Committee
BANNER PHOTO

Following a resounding call from Boston voters to switch from an appointed to an elected Boston School Committee, members of the City Council held a hearing Monday to begin examining the potential restructuring of the Boston Public Schools governing body.

The hearing was held to discuss an proposal for a home rule petition filed in August by District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo and at-large Councilor Julia Mejia, which offered a placeholder structure for an elected committee, pending further hearings to redesign the committee with the will of Boston citizens.

Monday’s hearing was intended to tackle the question of why a switch to an elected School Committee would benefit citizens of the city.

In November, 79% of Boston citizens voted yes on Question 3, a non-binding referendum asking voters “Should the current appointed school committee structure be changed to a school committee elected by the residents of Boston?” The more than 99,000 votes represented a majority of yes votes in every precinct across the city.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston NAACP, said the agreement across the city indicates that there is work to do.

“The fact that it won affirmation in every precinct in our entire city, with over 99,000 votes, speaks volumes to the desire of all Bostonians for this right,” Sullivan said in her testimony. “Now, we may not agree on all matters of public policy in this city — indeed, it is a rare occurrence when we do — but when we do agree it is imperative that we act and that we act expeditiously.”

John Nucci, senior vice president of external affairs at Suffolk University, who served on the elected School Committee prior to its shift to an appointed body in 1991, said the results of the election changed his perspective on the issue.

“I used to think it was not the most important issue to take a lot of time with, but after seeing the amount of votes Question 3 received, I just felt as though it would be terribly neglectful to ignore that mandate,” Nucci said in an interview ahead of the hearing.

When the council switched from an elected body in the 1990s, proponents of the change said the body was corrupt and dysfunctional.

Susan Naimark, who served on the appointed committee for nearly 10 years, said that at the time, she believed the demographics of voters in Boston did not line up with the demographics of most families who used BPS. In her eyes, that situation has changed.

“If you look at the makeup of the City Council, it’s pretty concrete evidence the electorate is [more] aligned with the city’s population than it was in 1991,” Naimark said at the hearing.

Sullivan expressed the same sentiment.

“I am not interested in relitigating the issues from the ’80s and ’90s, primarily because I believe we are a fundamentally a different city today than we were then, but I am very mindful that we will be judged on what we do today, based on who we are today,” Sullivan said in her testimony.

Supporters of an elected body said they believe it will lead to a more responsive and accountable body.

“I plan on continuing to raise my voice, but I’m not going to lie — with this appointed school system, I feel like my voice goes unheard and I can’t really hold anyone accountable,” said Suleika Soto, a BPS parent and parent organizer with the Boston Education Justice Alliance.

At the hearing, Neema Avashia, a BPS teacher at the former McCormack Middle School, said she and members of her school community appeared in front of the School Committee multiple times as the school found itself repeatedly in the crosshairs of questions, for instance to merge it with Boston Community Leadership Academy or to give its green space to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Dorchester.

Throughout it all, Avashia said she felt their voices were ignored.

“I don’t know that the outcome of School Committee votes pertaining to the McCormack would be different with an elected School Committee, but I do know as citizens of the city of Boston, we would have recourse when our needs were ignored.”

Supporters said they think the change will especially benefit communities of color, who make up a majority of BPS students but often get left behind, proponents of the change say.

Questions about the structure of an elected committee remain, falling outside the purview of this first hearing, but the Council said it plans to hold later hearings to develop a specific proposal for the number of members and whether the body will have district representation or all at-large representation.

Lisa Green, a BPS parent and member of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, said she would like to see the School Committee include members representing individual districts.

“All at-large elections don’t produce the representation that you would by having a district race,” Green said in an interview. “It also wouldn’t produce the kind of engagement that you get in a district race because you know that person, they’re right in your neighborhood.”

Councilors asked Monday if districts should be divided like they are for the City Council, by overall population, or if they should be divided by the number of school-age children. Sullivan, from the NAACP, said it likely would have to be drawn by overall population.

“From a legal standpoint, there will be some guardrails that we have when it comes to drawing the district lines,” Sullivan said at the hearing. “Because these are elected positions, they will be subjected to voting rights laws at the federal and state level, so there will be limitations in terms of what the denominator can actually be.”

Beth Huang, director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, said there might be a little flexibility in those lines — state statute allows for a 5% deviation from ideal population size, which Huang said could be used to take student population into account — but also said keeping the districts the same as those in the City Council might make a voter’s task easier.

“I think aligning [districts] with the City Council districts avoids voter confusion so that a parent in City Council District 1 knows who their city council member is, knows who their school committee member is. I think avoiding voter confusion is always useful,” Huang said in her testimony.

Green, who helped lead the push for Question 3, said she hopes to see Boston make the switch back to an appointed committee in 2022, with the home rule petition making its way out of City Hall early next year.

As that process occurs, and if the city switches to an elected body, Domingo Morel, a professor at Rutgers University, said it is important that Boston residents stay engaged.

“As it transitions to an elected board … people [need to] know that regardless of what the direction is, it’s going to require communities to stay fully engaged in the process, and no matter what the system is that gets implemented, whether it’s [hybrid elected and appointed], fully elected or so forth, in order for it to be representative of the community.”

Sullivan said that an elected School Committee can only do so much by itself, and that communities will be responsible for keeping the body — and its members — on track and accountable.

“It is critically important that as we start to open up this conversation, that we’re very clear about what an elected school committee will accomplish and what it will not,” Sullivan said. “The elected school committee, in and of itself, doesn’t make all the problems go away. It is, rather, a structure in which we are able to wrestle in a more engaged way with the policy issues and the challenges that are already there.”

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