Opinion: Keep the School Committee appointed

I worked for the Boston Municipal Research Bureau for 46 years, until I left in 2019. From 1972 to 1981, I observed and wrote about the Boston Public Schools (BPS) with the worst and better of the five-member elected School Committee, and from 1982 to 1991 about the dysfunction of the 13-member elected School Committee, and since 1992 about the seven-member appointed School Committee.

From these years of experience, I am convinced that the appointed School Committee structure affords Boston the best chance to improve school performance in all areas –educational, financial, and managerial. No governance structure by itself will determine the success of the Boston School Department’s ability to improve student achievement and address the racial opportunity gap, but I remain confident that the appointed School Committee has the best potential to achieve those goals if it functions as intended and if the mayor and School Committee properly understand and exercise their respective responsibilities and governing protocols.

In discussing governance structure, it is helpful to remember that the Boston School Committee is an educational policy body, not an appropriation authority or legislative body. The structure should ensure that members bring an appropriate mix of experiences and work as a cohesive policy body.

The issue of the future of school committee governance is not a civil or voting rights issue. This is an issue of which governance structure serves the best interests of the BPS students, not the best interest of adults. Unfortunately, in recent years, the effectiveness of the appointed School Committee has been mired by actions of the prior mayor that undermined the authority of the School Committee and personal actions made by a few members. Nevertheless, the appointed structure remains Boston’s best chance for student success.

The primary benefit of the appointed committee is that it holds one person accountable for Boston school performance – the mayor. The fundamental flaw of the elected committee was that it did not ensure direct accountability. The mayor was required to raise the funds to support the BPS budget, but the School Committee controlled the actual spending. This division of duties contributed to a culture of mistrust and finger-pointing rather than the improved collaboration that exists today. Politically, the mayor did not need to become directly invested in school performance as the mayor must now. With the elected committee, the priority of most members was to serve their voting constituents, causing them to focus more on day-to-day operations rather than systemwide educational policy.

The old system provided no incentive for the School Committee to control spending or any penalty if it did not. The elected committee incurred annual operating deficits in 11 out of the 14 years prior to 1992, while the appointed committee has achieved operating surpluses every year since 1992. School overspending had been noted by the bond rating agencies as a concerning factor.

The appointed School Committee now brings together Bostonians from diverse backgrounds to work with the superintendent in developing school policy, which was not replicated with the elected Committees. Today, of the seven-member Boston School Committee, three members are Latinx, two are African American, one is Asian, and one is Caucasian. The continued benefit of the appointed board will require highly qualified residents with appropriate experiences to be submitted to the mayor for appointment to the Committee.

A system that holds the mayor fully accountable for educational performance also ensures that more voters will be able to influence school improvement. Prior to 1992, school committee races lacked competition as well as votes. In 1989, incumbents in four out of nine district races ran unopposed. No district candidate in a competitive race received more than 16 percent of the vote that year.

The stability and steady progress in Boston schools under the appointed board for more than two decades gave national and local foundations and businesses confidence to financially support a variety of education initiatives. In 2006, the Boston Public School System was awarded the Broad Prize for being the nation’s most improved urban school system. The School Department was a finalist for this award for the three previous years. The earlier years show that the appointed Board offers the best chance to improve school performance and student achievement.

A hybrid school committee structure of members partly elected by the voters and partly appointed by the mayor has been suggested as an alternative to the current appointed structure. Each time the hybrid structure had been raised in the past, it was dismissed as being divisive and incompatible with the need for real accountability and a clear line of authority and responsibility. Issues have been raised as to whether in this city, a natural competitiveness would develop between the appointed and elected members that would inhibit a hybrid committee’s ability to function as a cohesive educational policy body.

The departure of Superintendent Brenda Cassellius at the end of the current school year now requires full focus on the search for a new, experienced superintendent. Moving forward to change the school committee structure during the search process would create uncertainty and would discourage top tier talent from applying. The most important legal responsibility of the School Committee is to manage the search process and appoint the superintendent.

Mayor Wu has appointed four members of the School Committee and will appoint two more members in December. The mayor should be given the opportunity to show a how a Committee she appoints can further support Boston students.

No board structure by itself is the solution to the challenges facing the Boston Public School System. However, the existing appointed board structure is the City’s best chance to ensure that the mayor remains fully accountable for public education while adhering to appropriate governing protocols, that School Committee members have the mix of experiences and skills to be a cohesive educational body, and that the School Committee responsibly exercises its educational policy and fiduciary duties, all of which will better serve the interests of the BPS students.

The City Council should make no change to the school committee governance structure, but should hold the mayor and School Committee accountable for improved student achievement.

Samuel R. Tyler is the former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

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