A group of Bostonians are petitioning to get an advisory referendum on the November 2 ballot that would ask voters if they support a return to an elected Boston School Committee. The body is currently composed of appointed members chosen by the mayor, a system that has been in place since 1991 when Boston sought and earned a Home Rule Petition to do-away with the elected school board.
If it gets on the ballot and is passed, the non-binding ballot question will heighten pressure on the City Council and the next mayor to support that change, which would require approval from the state Legislature and the governor to actually happen.
The ballot question, as put forth by the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, would read: “Should the current appointed school committee structure be changed to a school committee elected by the residents of Boston?” The question is meant to support a proposed home rule petition filed by District 5 Councillor Ricardo Arroyo and at-large councillor Julia Mejia that would re-structure the committee.
In recent weeks, the Reporter asked candidates for mayor and for Boston City Council at-large, as well as for Districts 3, 4 and 7 to share whether or not they would support the return to an elected school committee.
All five of the mayoral candidates favor some form of change to the current appointment system, but none favor a return to a fully-elected school committee as pitched in this petition. Most— including acting Mayor Kim Janey, Councillors Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell and John Barros— are open to a hybrid of majority-elected with appointed members and expanded roles for student representatives. Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George said she would seek to give the city council more oversight to appoint four members of the nine-member board “in partnership” with the mayor.
But, many candidates for district and at-large seats— including two incumbents running for re-election— are far more supportive of making the composition of the school board totally up to the will of city voters.
Of the 12 at-large candidates who responded to Reporter inquiries— 17 will appear on the Sept. 14 ballot— the majority are in favor of a fully- elected school committee, or would at least be open to a hybrid model. Incumbent at-large councillors Mejia and Michael Flaherty, Carla Monteiro, Ruthzee Louijeune, Kelly Bates, and Nick Vance all support a fully elected school committee.
Flaherty, who was first elected to the council in 1997, said that a hybrid model won’t go far enough to enact change, adding that committee members should be “held accountable to our school system’s end users: Boston’s school children and their parents/guardians.”
“While a hybrid committee may appeal to some as a compromise measure, I believe Boston voters can and should be trusted to exercise good judgement in the best interests of their children and grandchildren,” said Flaherty, a South Boston native who challenged the late Tom Menino for the mayor’s job in 2009.
Mejia, who is running for re-election to an at-large seat, agrees.
“We've seen over the past year how a solely-appointed school committee is dramatically unrepresentative and unaccountable to the needs of their constituents,” said Mejia. “An elected school committee gives greater voice to the parents, students, and teachers of our school district to see the future of BPS placed in the hands of the people who are living the day-to-day realities.
“I believe that the members of the school committee should be accountable to people in Boston rather than the Mayor, whoever it might be,” said Bates, a first-time candidate who lives in Hyde Park.
Flaherty, Colimon, Halbert and Monteiro said they would support reserving at least one seat on the committee for a student representative, with full voting rights and stipends.
Monteiro, a Dorchester resident, called the appointed structure “archaic and anti-democratic.”
“I support a fully elected school committee complete with two seats for student members who are given full voting rights and a stipend,” she said, “Student voice on the council for too long has gone undervalued and under-appreciated, these young leaders deserve better and adding an additional seat for our student members will empower them to be even more vocal advocates for their needs.
Other at-large candidates David Halbert, Said Abdikarim, Erin Murphy, Alex Gray, and James “Reggie” Colimon favor a hybrid model— a mix of elected and appointed seats. Spillane said that the council should be responsible for reviewing and approving the mayor’s appointments.
“I am open to an elected school committee if at least we try a hybrid model that includes accountability on both sides; those appointed and those elected,” said Abdikarim.
Louijeuene, who supports either a hybrid or fully-elected committee, said a “hybrid structure allows for power-sharing and greater accountability, while accounting for the issue of low name-recognition in municipal elections.”
Murphy, a Dorchester resident and longtime public school teacher, said that a hybrid makes the most sense. “There is value in having the mayor appoint some members, but I also see value in having some be elected… Elected members have to answer to the public more.”
Gray said he would support half of the members being appointed by the mayor, but “open to a conversation on whether the second half should be elected directly by voters or should be voted on by specific groups such as the City Council, students, teachers, etc.”
“My fear is that if all of the positions are elected, certain community voices will be left out and not have a seat at the table,” he added.
Rather than returning to a fully elected body, Spillane said: “The City Council needs to be given the responsibility to approve all appointments and reappointments to the School Committee.”
District 3 City Councillor Frank Baker from Dorchester, who is running for re-election, said he’s been advocating for a hybrid school committee since his first election in 2011.
“The school committee needs to be held accountable, not just by the mayor or the school department but also by the people of Boston, who trust them with their children,” said Baker. “A hybrid school committee seems like a fair way to do that. At a bare minimum, City Councillors should have confirmation powers on the school committee members.
Stephen McBride, Baker’s challenger in November, also supports a hybrid model.
“I favor having over 50 percent be elected so that a majority of the committee is responsible to the people. To ensure that partisan politics aren’t the only factor, retaining an appointed component will keep the committee grounded,” said McBride. “I also believe that the student member should have a vote as the rest of the committee does.”
Out of the eight candidates qualified to appear on the ballot in the Sept. 14 primary for District 4, the seat that will be vacated by mayoral candidate Andrea Campbell, six said they would support a fully elected school committee: Evandro Carvalho, Joel Richards, Brain Worrell, Leonard Lee, Josette Williams, and Deeqo Jibril.
“I believe community leaders, residents, and youth should be able to nominate potential committee members and those nominations must be reflective of the BPS student and family body,” said Williams.
“Once members have been nominated by their community, then a board consisting of the Mayor, sitting council president, BSAC and Mayor’s youth leadership, BPS parents, community leaders and school committee alumni should be assembled as a board, to discuss and come up with the final decision. At this point, if there is no consensus, the Mayor should have the final decision to break any stagnation in the process.”
The City Council seat in District 7 now held by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, which includes parts of Dorchester, Roxbury and the South End, is sought after by a field of eight candidates: Brandy Brooks, Marisa Luse, Joao Depina, Lorraine Payne Wheelerm, Santiago Leon Rivera, Angelina Camacho, Roy Owens Sr., and Tania Anderson.
Anderson is on record supporting an elected school committee, saying that "residents deserve to have their voices heard."
Brooks supports a fully elected committee, saying that “opponents of an elected School Committee have a tendency to conflate the old totally at-large elected Committee with the at-large and District School Committee that Boston voters approved in 1983.”
"The latter model was much more accountable than either its predecessor or successor, and should be reinstated,” she added.
Camacho, who serves as a member of the Citizens Nominating Panel, said she sees “firsthand how the appointed process can serve as an example of the access that many residents demand for everyday people to have a strong voice in leadership,” and thinks the process should be left as-is.