A third path for Boston’s School Committee

No to appointees, electeds – go with stakeholders

Students versus teachers.

Teachers versus parents.

Parents versus administrators.

Administrators versus everyone.

In a COVID-19 world, this “us versus them” mentality just doesn’t work anymore. We’ve seen it happen a lot recently, with talks over the past few months around reopening the Boston Public Schools and in discussions concerning the McCormack Middle School.  As parents, we find ourselves leaving those meetings feeling more confused and less understood than we did going in.

And we’re among the lucky ones who have the time to listen in on these meetings and make our voices heard. Working families across Boston are feeling shutout from these processes. Parents in our network have started to build alternative models to engagement on a variety of issues from supporting the families of essential workers to reimagining remote learning for the fall. But it’s not enough: We need institutional change from the ground up in order to ensure that every student and parent has a voice to advocate for each other.

In order to do that, we need to look at the structure of our School Committee. In 1991, the governor signed a home rule petition, which originated in the Boston City Council, abolishing Boston’s elected 13-member school committee and replacing it with the current seven-member committee appointed by the mayor.

The School Committee makes major decisions that impact the daily lives of students, parents, teachers, and the community at-large. These decisions include monitoring the schools budget and overseeing student achievement. Votes can often pass with slim majorities, or sometimes even with margins short of that. When it comes to the recent controversy involving the McCormack Middle School, the School Committee was tasked with voting on the transfer of public land, some of the only green space available, from the middle school on Columbia Point to the Boys and Girls Club of Dorchester. In the end, there were three votes in favor, two votes against, and two abstentions. This is hardly a majority yet it was sufficient to shift public land to a private entity.

We’ve seen the ebbs and flows of school committee structure over the years and the positives and negatives that come with it. An appointed school committee might offer more “stability,” but it too often excludes the voices of the people in their decision-making, causing rifts between the education community and the body that serves them. An elected committee might be popularly elected, but that doesn’t guarantee its members will stand up for the people that put them there, especially given the impact that outside money has had on school committee elections.

Individually, the Boston school committee members are fine people who have well-formed opinions on what our schools need in order to be successful. However, we also need to be mindful of how these individuals show up and act as a group. If the purpose of a school committee is to define the vision of Boston Public Schools, we need to work to ensure that that vision includes accountability for all by creating pathways to equitable engagement.

What if we could have both more accountability and less divisive politics? What if we could diffuse power while simultaneously protecting the process from outside influences?

We think Boston could achieve that with a model that does not revert to an elected School Committee, but also abandons the status quo of a panel appointed by the mayor. Under our proposal, each school committee member would be chosen by specific community stakeholders.

One spot would be chosen by the mayor, a second by the Citywide Parents Council, a third by students, a fourth by the Boston Teachers Union, a fifth by the special education advocacy group SpEd Pac, a sixth by the higher education community of Boston, and the seventh by the Boston City Council. The body should truly represent the full spectrum of people it serves, particularly students. We need youth delegates serving on this panel, and let’s be clear: They deserve a vote just as much as any other member — not the non-voting status currently given to the student representative.

Meet the Author

Julia Mejia

Founder and CEO, Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network
Meet the Author

Michael J. Maguire

Vice president, American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts
No system that we create will ever be perfect, but we can move the needle towards more open dialogue and more accountable representation. We always hear about people needing to be “brought to the table.” But isn’t it about time we build a new table, one that is built from the ground up with the idea that every stakeholder with an interest in our school system should have a voice, one that finally disrupts the “us versus them” mentality?

Julia Mejia is an at-large Boston city councilor and chair of the Civil Rights Committee. Michael J. Maguire is a teacher and a parent in the Boston Public Schools, and serves on the executive board of the Boston Teachers Union and on the Boston School Committee nominating panel.  His views are his own.