What if Boston just scrapped its school committee altogether?
A provocative proposal floated as governance debate heats up
TO SAY THE Boston school system is in flux would be like suggesting the city’s drivers occasionally seem a tad aggressive on the roads.
The district is about to say goodbye to its fifth superintendent in 10 years at the same time that the city is debating a possible change to the school governance structure after voters overwhelmingly backed a non-binding ballot question in November asking whether they favor a return to an elected school committee. Meanwhile, district enrollment is plummeting, leaving the city maintaining ancient half-empty school buildings with decades of deferred maintenance needs.
The district has defied efforts to get it on a solid track for years. The revolving door of superintendents has come with an ongoing back-and-forth debate over whether the schools would be better served by an appointed school committee (which has been in place for three decades) or an elected one (the structure that prevailed before that change).
The call for a return to an elected panel seems to have more momentum now than at any point since the change to an appointed board in the early 1990s. But two longtime Boston leaders with backgrounds in education say we’re debating a “false choice” of two bad options. Bill Walczak and Meg Campbell, writing in the current issue of the Dorchester Reporter, propose a radical third option: They say we should do away with the Boston school committee entirely and put the mayor directly in control of the schools.
Walczak, the founder and longtime CEO of the Codman Square Health Center, co-founded with Campbell the Codman Academy Charter School and also co-founded the Edward Kennedy Academy for Health Careers, an in-district Boston charter school. Campbell, who ran Codman Academy for many years, served for four years as a member of the appointed Boston school committee.
“It just doesn’t work,” Campbell said in an interview, talking about the appointed board. It adds another “layer of bureaucracy that basically provides cover so that the mayor doesn’t have to take the heat” over problems with schools.
At the same time, she and Walczak – who are married – say an elected committee has, over the years, been a haven for political jockeying that often has nothing to do with improving public education in the city. They point in their commentary piece to concerns dating back to the 1890s, when reform advocates called the elected committee “a way station for ward politicians.”
As a city department under the mayor, they say, whoever is hired to run the schools could focus entirely on education issues, while other city departments handle long-troubled school facility issues and bus transportation operations.
City Councilor Julia Mejia, who chairs the council’s education committee, took a dim view of their idea. “We need more democracy when it comes to our schools,” said Mejia, adding that the city should be moving toward a proposal for return to an elected school committee following the 79 percent support for the advisory question to make that change. A governance change would require a vote of the City Council, sign-off by the mayor, and approval by the state Legislature of a home-rule petition.
City Councilor Erin Murphy, the vice chair of the education committee and a former Boston school teacher, said Walczak and Campbell “brought up good points” in their piece – but she still favors reviving an elected committee.
Mayor Michelle Wu has called for a hybrid committee, with a majority of the seats elected and a minority appointed by the mayor.
“It’s time for a new plan,” he and Campbell write.