Councillors hear pushback on School Committee by appointment

This story was first published on December 12 by WBUR 90.9FM, Boston’s NPR News Station. WBUR and the Reporter have a partnership in which the two news organziations share resources and content.

Emotions ran high at a City Council hearing last Tuesday night focused on whether or not Boston should go back to electing the School Committee.The three-hour Education Committee session covered a lot of ground, but in the end, most of the comments shared one common theme: The voices of the community are not being heard.

“The real issue is whether or not the Boston School Committee is truly accountable to the needs of Boston families, students, and educators,” said Brandy Oakley, the executive director of Educators for Excellence Boston, a teacher-led policy advocacy group. “Every voice has to matter,” she added, “and there must be multiple avenues for engagement.”

The vast majority of her group’s members oppose the current structure, Oakley said, which has the mayor appointing school committee members from a list of candidates developed by a citizen nominating commission. Oakley contends that that arrangement gives too much power to one person.

The hearing was called by City Councillor-at large Annissa Essaibi-George, who began talking about starting an official dialogue on the issue last January in the wake of parent and community frustration over the process that led to the committee’s vote to change school start times.BPS eventually shelved the plans.

“That effort to change the school start and end times and not really include school communities in that conversation really put a lot of people over the edge when we talk about the role of the school committee and making education decisions,” she said.

Essaibi-George said that she’s personally not convinced that an elected school committee is the answer, but she added that it is past time to publicly examine the current system, saying, “the public has not had an opportunity to talk out loud, in a formal setting, on the record about what their experience has been with the school committee.”

Mayor Martin Walsh was not at the meeting, but he rejected the idea of moving away from an appointed committee. “When it was elected, it was a disaster,” he said.

The city switched to the current appointment structure in 1992, after mounting criticism over student performance, budget deficits, and corruption. Boston is the only municipal school district in Massachusetts with an appointed committee. Nationally, the vast majority of school are elected, with the exception of large cities like Chicago and New York, which also have appointed school board members.

Walsh argues that since doing away with school committee elections, the governing body has been running with better representation and more stability.

Former City Councillor Lawrence DiCara, a panelist at the Tuesday hearing, also opposes the idea of moving away from an appointed body. He said the 1970s were not the best of times for the elected board. “There were some decent people who served on those committees,’ he said, “but there were many who ran only because there was an available office.” He argued that mayoral committee appointments actually increase accountability because the mayor is fully accountable for the public education system.

But most who attended at the meeting insisted times have changed. They said they believed the school committee in place is run at the behest of the mayor, and that the only way to truly meet the needs of the local community is to restore the democratic process.

“Democracy is messy,” said Mary Battenfeld, a member of the grassroots parent advocacy group Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST). “A lot can go wrong, but that doesn’t mean we should do wrong in return.”

While there will likely be continued discussion onthe issue in the coming months, Essaibi-George says that formal recommendations and final decisions are probably years away.