Reporter’s Notebook: Hybrid Boston School Committee? For some, something to ponder

Dissatisfaction over the Boston School Committee’s decision to close nine schools and merge eight others into four has stirred chatter about having elected committee members on the mayorally-appointed panel.

Boston shifted to a seven-member appointed committee from an all-elected 13-member school committee in 1992 after voters approved the change in a referendum. Four years later, the electorate supported sticking with the current model on another referendum vote.

But talk of going to a hybrid of elected and appointed members has started up again in some circles after the school department this fall moved to close schools for the coming academic year, pointing to thousands of empty seats across the district and an expected $63 million deficit in the budget next year.

City Councillor At-Large Felix Arroyo, whose father served on the school committee in the 1990s, said a hybrid would allow the mayor to appoint education professionals and parents to feel that there is direct accountability for actions the board takes. “That’s something I’d be happy to look into in the new year,” he said.

Rep.-elect Carlos Henriquez of Dorchester said he supports a hybrid model and wants to look into the costs. His father Julio, a community activist, worked for a school committee member back when it was an elected body. The younger Henriquez remembers constantly contentious meetings. “I know there is a call to go back to it,” he said. “I think a hybrid would be better.”

Richard Stutman, head of the Boston Teachers Union, said he supports a hybrid model. “It is clearly a process that is nonresponsive to parents and students, not to mention teachers,” he said of the current committee. A hybrid would lead to a “return to sanity and participatory democracy,” he added.

While saying he can see Boston adopting a hybrid committee in the not-too-distant future, City Council President Michael Ross defended the current setup and said the City Council provides a check-and-balance function on school decisions. “Those are dedicated people,” said Ross, who worked on the campaign to keep the school committee mayorally-appointed in 1996. “I don’t think what you’re seeing is robots being installed on the school committee.”

Rev. Gregory Groover, the chairman of the committee, said that under the appointment model the district has seen gains. He urged parents to get involved through councils and the committee meetings. “I think the district has been moving consistently in the right direction,” he said. “We’ve seen improvement in test scores. We’ve seen the schools get better, we’ve seen students having greater access.”

As for a hybrid, “I’m not sure where that will lead us,” he said, noting that both elected and appointed school committees have voted to close schools.

Sam Tyler, who heads up the municipal watchdog group, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, panned the hybrid model as “destructive” and said the idea had been dismissed when the move to an appointed school committee was being considered.

Tyler said the current arrangement puts the mayor in charge, with a wide array of voters able to hold him accountable if they are unhappy with the school system. “They didn’t see their role as education policy makers,” he said, recalling the actions of elected school committees. They saw the position as a stepping stone. Their constituents were not the kids, their constituents were the adults.”

In a 1996 memo opposing a return to an elected school committee, the bureau said that that setup created a “culture of mistrust and chronic overspending” and cost $1 million in operational funds in fiscal year 1989, while an appointed committee cost about $270,000 in fiscal year 1997.

Currently, each committee member receives an annual $7,500 stipend. (Rev. Groover and fellow member Michael O’Neill, senior vice president of marketing and distribution at Savings Bank Life Insurance, have declined the stipend.)

“It’s an interesting idea and it comes out at a time when people are very upset about the school closings and the consolidation plans,” Avi Green, executive director of the voting rights group MassVOTE, said of a hybrid model.

But he raised questions about when to hold the elections – few people vote in odd years – and whether members would be elected from each neighborhood or at-large. Elected school committees have also left the door open to patronage, he noted. “I think it’s something we need to be careful about,” Green said.

Council adds amendment to Boston Jobs Policy

Information on the residence, race, and gender of workers on large construction projects in Boston will be searchable in an online database, under an order the City Council approved last week.

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, which signs off on projects, and the Boston Employment Commission, which works with contractors, would maintain the database and update it monthly.
The order is an amendment to the Boston Jobs Policy, guidelines that encourage developers and contractors to hire Boston residents for 50 percent of the work on a project, people of color for 25 percent, and women for 10 percent.

The amendment was sponsored by City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley and Mission Hill Councillor Ross.

The amendment needs the approval of the mayor.

Quote of Note: Gov. Deval Patrick

Merry Christmas to Secretary of State William Galvin, from Gov. Deval Patrick. When asked by reporters at a press conference earlier this week why he wasn’t pushing hard for an independent commission to work on redistricting the state’s political lines, Patrick said Galvin, the state’s chief elections officer, had declined to push for it.

“We, working with the legislative leadership, asked the Secretary of State about a year ago if he would support an independent commission and he said, ‘No,’ and then a few weeks ago he said, ‘Yes,’ and at that point they had already started the expenditures to prepare for redistricting, working down that path,” Patrick said.

Galvin told the State House News Service that his position had been consistent. “I have proposed and continue to support an advisory committee...that could present multiple proposals to the Legislature to set the framework of the debate,” Galvin said. “I would not be for something to take the power completely away from the Legislature and install an independent commission that would not be elected.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check out updates to Boston’s political scene at The Lit Drop, located at Material from State House News Service was used in this report.