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Don’t return to an elected school board

Changing Boston’s School Committee back from appointed to elected is a dangerous idea. Proponents forget how the old elected school committee usually overspent its budget, handled racial minorities poorly, and used the committee as s political stepping stone to higher office. Even worse, four members were indicted and two convicted of crimes, including one member taking kickback money from bus contractors.

The old elected committee operated as an “employment board” not a board of education. Minutes show that most of their votes were on appointments, transfers, promotions, new positions for which three votes were essential. Committee members held birthday parties and other fundraisers to which ambitious teachers and school staff were invited to attend or sell tickets. The Boston Teachers Union decided against teachers making those sordid payments.

A series of Boston school superintendents left in frustration. Instead, the committees appointed by Mayor Menino attracted experienced city school superintendents whose efforts raised state achievement and SAT scores, graduation rates, expanded athletic and artistic opportunities and restored national respect for city schools. The Eli Broad Foundation recognized Boston schools as the “most improved urban education system” in America in 2006.

City councilors have had to listen to parent complaints about school bus rides and school closings. But the old elected school committee had to close dozens of small schools from the 1950s up to 1990, some of them ordered by a federal judge because the school committee would not let black students into half empty schools.

Since 1991 Mayors Flynn and Menino have made sure that the school committee reflected the majority minority student base and appointed leaders like Paul Parks, former state Secretary of Education, Bill Boyan of John Hancock and Bob Culver, CFO of Northeastern University, men unlikely to run for office.

I have been observing Boston schools for almost fifty years, as a professor, state official, dean and college president. For a while (1970) I thought a mixed appointed/elected school board might make sense, but time has proved me wrong. It could set back Boston schools many decades to change back to a corrupt and ineffectual format. A recent Suffolk University poll revealed that citizens worry about municipal corruption. My book Reforming Boston Schools includes stories about payoffs and patronage. Do not reopen that door.

Joseph M. Cronin, a resident of Lower Mills, has been Associate Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Massachusetts Secretary of Education and president of Bentley College. He has taught at Harvard, Boston College and Boston University. His book Reforming Boston Schools 1930- The Present: Overcoming Corruption and Racial Segregation analyzes Boston schools before and after major reforms were enacted.