The case for sticking with an appointed School Committee setup for Boston

By Samuel R. Tyler

The Boston Municipal Research Bureau supports the appointed board structure because it can ensure that the mayor remains fully accountable for public education and that the School Committee is diverse with members who have the mix of experiences and skills to be a cohesive educational policy body.

For the past 27 years, the appointed committee has proven to be more educationally focused, fiscally responsible, and better able to tackle important, but politically difficult, issues than the record demonstrated by either the five-member or thirteen-member elected school committees of earlier times.

With the elected School Committees, too many members were more concerned with day-to-day operations than with broad educational policy issues.

Boston’s move to the appointed school committee structure evolved over a decade of attempts to make the elected process work. In fact, the change came only after a series of efforts to improve the governance of schools within the existing elected structure. On four separate occasions, from 1978 to 1987, legislation was enacted that focused on strengthening the role of the superintendent, limiting the School Committee’s role in operational matters, and improving financial controls in the department.

The primary benefit of the appointed committee is that it holds one person accountable for school performance - the mayor. The fundamental flaw of the elected committee was that it did not ensure direct accountability in any one person or board. The mayor was required to raise the funds to support the system, but the School Committee decided how to spend the money. This division of duties contributed to a culture of mistrust and fingerpointing rather than the improved collaboration that exists today.

This direct accountability must be maintained and it would be weakened through an elected or hybrid structure.

In addition to being a cohesive educational policy body, the School Committee has a duty to exercise its fiduciary responsibility, especially since the school department is the largest city department and its employees represent one-half of the city’s workforce. The elected structure included no incentive for the School Committee to control spending, nor any penalty if it did not. In every year since 1992, under the appointed School Committee, the School Department has ended the fiscal year with an operating surplus. As an elected body, the School Committee incurred operating deficits in 11 out of 14 years prior to 1992.

The mayor’s direct accountability for the public schools accounts for the fact that over the last 10 years,during difficult fiscal times and escalating state assessment, health insurance and pension costs, the school department’s share of total General Fund spending held steady at about 35 percent.

By making the mayor fully accountable for educational performance, a larger number of voters are better positioned to influence school improvement than a smaller number of voters who would divide their mandate among the elected committee members. More voters in Boston go to the polls to vote for mayor than any other elected position, so far more voters hold the BPS accountable by voting for mayor than those who would vote for school committee members and a system of divided accountability.

In 1996, the voters of Boston resoundingly chose by a 70-30 percent vote to retain the current seven-member appointed structure. On Question 2, a binding question on the Nov. 4, 1996 ballot, the appointed School Committee won by a plurality of 59,458 votes and carried 20 of Boston’s 22 wards.

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 structure. This proposal was made by a second mayoral advisory committee in 1989, and also in recent years, but each time it was quickly dismissed as being divisive and incompatible with the need for real accountability and a clear line of authority and responsibility.

No board structure by itself is the solution to the challenges facing the Boston Public Schools. However, the existing appointed board structure is the city’s best chance to ensure that the mayor remains fully accountable for public education, that School Committee members have the mix of experiences and skills to be a cohesive education policy body, and that the School Committee responsibly exercises its fiduciary responsibility.

The Research Bureau recommends that no change be made to the current Boston School Committee governance structure.

Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, testified before the Boston City Council’s Committee on Education on Dec. 11 at a hearing focused on the governance structure of the Boston School Committee. The above was taken from what he said.