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Wu vetoes School Committee vote

Mayor clashes with council over governance of Boston schools

Isaiah Thompson

Just a week ago, supporters of a return to an elected Boston school committee had cause to celebrate. On Wednesday, Boston City Council members passed, albeit narrowly, a home rule petition that would have created such a body, with 13 voting members — nine elected by city district and four elected at large, mirroring the structure of the City Council itself. 

City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, chair of the Council’s Committee on Government Operations, said the measure and its passage in the Council represented no less than an enactment of the will of Boston voters, who overwhelmingly approved a 2021 ballot measure calling for an elected school committee.

Two days later, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu vetoed the measure, putting a decisive end to this round of political maneuvering, and leaving little ambiguity on where she stands on a return to a fully elected School Committee.

Arroyo called the veto “disappointing.”

Wu argued, as she has repeatedly, that moving to a fully elected School Committee, at least now, would undermine her own ability to bring much-needed changes to Boston Public Schools during a critical time, and with repeated threats of state takeover ever-looming in the background.

In a letter accompanying her veto, Wu wrote: “Respectfully, I cannot support legislative changes that would compromise our ability to stabilize and support the Boston Public Schools during this critical period.”

While the mayor did not directly cite it, even supporters of the home rule petition have shared, publicly and in private, a concern that School Committee elections could draw not only questionable outside spending, but the kind of uproarious partisan and special-issue-driven politics that have swept school committees across the country. 

Wu has never said that she supported fully reversing the 1992 change that replaced an elected Boston School Committee with one appointed entirely by the mayor.

But she has said repeatedly, including on the mayoral campaign trail, that she supported a so-called hybrid model, with some members elected and others appointed by the mayor — though she seemed to retreat somewhat from this stance recently, telling GBH News that the present time isn’t right for such a move either.

Whether Wu still favors a hybrid committee and if so, what she intends to do about it — remains unclear.

When asked the day after the Council’s vote whether she intends to offer up her own legislation to implement a hybrid model or any other change to the existing school committee, Wu told the Banner “I haven’t decided.”

Frustrated City Councilors say the ball is now in Wu’s court.

District 6 City Councilor Kendra Lara told the Banner that it is now incumbent upon the mayor to come to the table.

“The mayor has always been public about supporting a hybrid School Committee, and we didn’t send her a hybrid [model], so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that she wasn’t supportive,” Lara acknowledged. “But I think that the voters in the city of Boston overwhelmingly voted in favor of an elected school committee, and I think the City Council, as representative of the constituents, sent a home rule petition representative of what our constituents and the public want to see.”

“If the mayor wants to send something back,” said Lara, “if she wants to work with the Council for us to get as close as possible to what our voters are asking for, then we are willing to work to make that happen.”

Advocates supporting the Council’s home rule petition voiced disappointment — but echoed calls for Wu to negotiate.

“She seems to be walking back on her quoted commitment as mayor to work with the City Council on the home rule petition and her campaign commitment to a hybrid [model] by saying now isn’t the right time for anything,” said Lisa Green, chair of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, an advocacy group that grew out a ballot committee supporting the 2021 “Yes” vote.

“She has not wanted to come to the table on this issue at all … so hearing her say she hasn’t made a decision on whether she was going to offer a counter-proposal, I would strongly encourage her to keep faith with the voters,” Green said. “She has to engage in this process. You can’t turn your back on something that 79% of the electorate supports.”

Complicating the picture somewhat is the messy vote that marked the passage of the Council’s petition.

While the measure was expected to pass the Council, as none of its members have come out as directly opposed to an elected School Committee, the final 7-5 vote revealed cracks in a facade of unity, with Council members splitting over questions around student representation and the ideal structure of an elected committee. In the end, five Council members — Erin Murphy, Michael Flaherty, Frank Baker, Brian Worrell and Council President Ed Flynn — voted against the measure, while Councilor Kenzie Bok voted “present,” effectively abstaining.

At-large Councilor Michael Flaherty offered an 11th-hour amendment on the Council floor that sought to completely restructure the School Committee as it had emerged from Council committee, replacing it with a smaller, five-member body elected entirely at-large. That amendment failed to pass — but perhaps gave dissenting Council members cover to vote “no.”

Whether, when or how the issue might make its way back to the legislative table is unknown. If the mayor intends to offer a compromise, Wu, just into the second year of her first term as mayor, appears to be in no hurry to do so.