Candidates spar over an elected vs. appointed school panel

By 
Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Jun. 26, 2013

Three of the twelve candidates running for mayor, meeting in a forum on Tuesday at the Palm restaurant at One International Place, differed among themselves on whether the city’s School Committee should consist of elected or mayorally appointed members.

The event, with state Rep. Marty Walsh, City Councillor At-Large John Connolly, and District 4 Councillor Charles Yancey in attendance, was a departure from recent candidate get-togethers, which have featured most of the twelve candidates together on the stage, sometimes shoulder-to-shoulder. Charles Clemons was scheduled to be at the Tuesday forum, but he was a no-show, later telling the Reporter he was tied up with a “personal issue.”

Asked by Samuel Tyler, head of the business-backed Boston Municipal Research Bureau, about their opinions on the School Committee, Walsh said he supported keeping it appointed, while Yancey panned the appointment model. Connolly, who chairs the council’s education committee, appeared torn, though he said he leaned toward supporting appointing the school panel.

After the forum, Connolly acknowledged that he had moved on the issue. Early this year, when District 3 Councillor Frank Baker proposed a hybrid model – 3 members elected citywide and 4 members appointed by the mayor – Connolly said he supported the proposal. But on Tuesday, he said that the more he has thought about the School Committee, the more he has moved back towards the “undecided” column, and leaning in the direction of an appointed committee. At the forum, he said that regardless of whether the committee is appointed or elected, he primarily wants an “independent” committee that would not act like a “rubber stamp” for the mayor, and instead push the superintendent and the mayor to “do the best they can.”

If the 7-member School Committee becomes an elected body, he said, he’s concerned that the teachers union and other special interests could spend money to elect members who would follow their specific agenda. The teachers’ union has voiced support for a hybrid committee.

In his comments, Walsh noted that Boston voters have twice supported an appointed School Committee. “I think that’s a statement in itself,” he said, referring to votes in 1989 and 1996. The School Committee switched over to the appointed model, which is supported by Mayor Thomas Menino, in 1992, after years of turmoil and criticism.

And while Baker is a top supporter of Walsh, and a Menino critic, the Dorchester state representative and top union official said an appointed committee also keeps politics out of education. Walsh added that he would support restructuring the committee in order to allow better representation from each of the city’s school zones. Walsh added that currently there is little back and forth between parents and the committee.

Yancey noted that other Massachusetts cities and towns cast ballots for their school committees. An appointed school committee is not a “panacea,” Yancey said, and while the one in Boston has made some progress, it has not “significantly improved” Boston’s public schools.

Clemons told the Reporter that he is for a switch back to an elected committee, a notion that has gained currency in some circles over the past few years, as some parents have voiced frustration with the school department’s moves to shut down some schools and merge others.

The forum did not spend all its time on the School Committee issue. They took up matters like workforce housing and mulled what sort of descriptives would affix to their individual mayoralties. Menino is frequently called “the urban mechanic” for his focus on fixing potholes and a City Hall that’s responsive to constituent’s everyday needs. Asked what they thought they would call themselves, in a similar fashion, Connolly said “the school transformer,” Walsh opted for “the visionary,” and Yancey offered the “great uniter.”

Asked about a shortage of housing for the city’s workforce, Connolly said that if he were elected, he would put a priority on the “middle market” – young professionals and young families who are leaving the city in their ‘30s because they can’t afford to shift from renting to owning. Subsidies and an embrace of building heights and transit-orientated development to increase density are needed, he added.

Walsh said he would push for 1,000 micro-units – apartments that are just a few hundred square feet – and to building housing on top of retail establishments, like in New Orleans.

Along with the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, other sponsors of the forum included CommonWealth magazine, the business group A Better City (ABC), and the Chiofaro Company.

Additional forums, with the rest of the candidates, are planned for July 11 and July 18 at the Palm restaurant site. The other candidates running include City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, former School Committee member John Barros, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley, District 5 Councillor Rob Consalvo, former state Rep. Charlotte Golar Richie, District 8 Councillor Michael Ross, Codman Square Health Center co-founder Bill Walczak, and Roxbury resident David James Wyatt.