Commentary: Let’s place our schools directly under the mayor

Michelle Wu Brenda Cassellius Jeri Robinson

Mayor Michelle Wu speaks with reporters outside Brighton High School, as Dr. Brenda Cassellius and Jeri Robinson, chair of the Boston School Committee, stand behind her. (Jeremiah Robinson/Mayor’s Office photo)

In the ancient Greek fables of Aesop, we are cautioned: “Be careful what you wish for.” We are applying that advice today to the non-binding vote taken by Bostonians last November to reinstate an elected school committee to oversee the Boston Public Schools (BPS). Seventy-nine percent of the voters supported returning to an elected school committee, which was last in place in 1991.

The ballot presented a false choice. Our district schools are too important to think that an elected or an appointed school committee will be able to fix the system. We’ve tried both, back and forth, for more than 50 years, and neither structure has delivered universal, high-quality education regardless of race and class. Enrollment continues to plummet. Many buildings are in neglected condition.

Rather than tinker once more with past failures, we have a bold proposal: Make the school department another department responsible to the mayor. The budget for the schools is the largest part of the city’s budget, so those in charge of the budget – the elected mayor and city councillors – should be held accountable for the performance of the schools. We don’t need another political layer to be involved in making decisions about our schools. The school committee is a vestigial organ whose time has passed. Imagine instead parents and residents being able to make 311 calls about the schools directly to the mayor. That would move schools and education to center stage for every mayor and councillor.

Through a 1989 referendum question, the School Committee was transitioned from a panel of 13 elected members to one of 7 individuals appointed by the mayor. In a follow-up referendum in 1996, 69 percent of voters opposed a return to an elected committee.

The elected committee had a long history before Mayor Kevin White proposed eliminating the committee that had opposed racial integration of the school system in 1973 in a referendum question that failed to win approval. Before that, in 1944, a Boston Finance Commission study of the schools found a system poorly “run by politicians, a system that was failing to spark the imagination or curiosity of its pupils, a dull bureaucracy not helping the children who need help.” Long before that, in the 1890s, reformers warned that the school board was becoming “a way station for ward politicians.”

Whether they’re dealing with an elected or appointed panel, Bostonians quickly tire of school committee leadership. Why such dissatisfaction? Over the years, one consistent theme has been the poor quality of a school system that seems incapable of providing excellent education for all students. Despite Boston’s reputation as a center of learning excellence in higher education, Boston’s K- 12 public schools consistently rank very low in comparison with the rest of Massachusetts. Not enough voters care about the condition of the school system, and with a committee that bears responsibility for the schools, no mayoral candidate has won or lost an election because of where her or she stands on BPS issues.

Going back to an elected school committee will means that those seeking to be elected need to raise money to campaign. Though not the case in all instances, money is usually the key determinant of who wins elections, and, more importantly, how incumbents win later elections. Nearly all incumbent politicians develop sources of funding that are related to where they have influence and power. A recent study on where political contributions to sheriffs come from offers an example: It found that 13 of the 14 sheriffs in Massachusetts receive a substantial amount of their political contributions from sheriff department contractors.

Where would school committee candidates get their campaign cash? In the past, it was from school department vendors, and from those seeking promotions in the system. Who would fund the candidates today and which contractors will provide money to their super PACs? Will candidates seek support and money from the teachers and bus drivers’ unions? Will an elected school committee be an asset to those who care about education, or just exist as a stepping-stone to higher office?

Returning to an elected school committee reinstates a system in which the schools are run by the school committee, but the funding comes from the mayor and city council, a dynamic that makes decision-making cumbersome and complicated. To avoid this, will the elected school committee be given taxation powers to fund the schools?

The city is about to start recruiting for a new school superintendent. Everyone hopes for a spectacular choice who can make BPS the best system in the nation. We wonder who would want the job as the City Council works to re-implement an elected committee, which would serve as the new superintendent’s administrative boss.

We can avoid this unnecessary addition to the political system and BPS bureaucracy by placing the schools under the mayor, and by having its budget set by the mayor and the City Council. That setup would make those with the power of the purse responsible for the system instead of allowing a new political bureaucracy to divert that responsibility and create more finger-pointing over failing schools.

Imagine recruiting a new leader for the BPS with authority to focus on improving education. The city’s commissioner of education would report directly to the elected mayor and could focus on hiring, supporting, and holding accountable the most critical employees in the district – its principals.

The new leader could work with the mayor to expand universal early childhood education to every three-year-old in the city, and have responsibility for after-school, summer and remote learning programming and a continuum of support for parents. It would be the mayor’s job to renovate school buildings and put up new ones while running the transportation system in the greenest manner possible. This is the system of education our city needs, deserves, and should have.

The city has had five referenda on an elected versus appointed committee, but in the end, our system remains in crisis. It’s time for a new plan.

Bill Walczak and Meg Campbell are married and residents of Dorchester. Bill, who has worked in health care and education, co-founded both Codman Academy and the Edward Kennedy Health Careers Academy. Meg is a former Boston School Committee member, a lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and co-founder of Boston Women’s Heritage Trail and Codman Academy Charter Public School.


Subscribe to the Dorchester Reporter