What if Boston just scrapped its school committee altogether?
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.
“Who’s going to take this job?” Walczak asked, with the current mayorally-appointed board poised to select the new leader, who could find herself or himself answering to an entirely different committee of elected members if the governance change goes through.
“It’s time for a new plan,” he and Campbell write.
Governor field narrows: Danielle Allen, a scholar of Athenian democracy, learned a hard lesson about Massachusetts democracy during her run for the Democratic nomination for governor. To even get on the primary ballot, a candidate needs the support of 15 percent of the delegates to the state Democratic Party convention. As a newcomer to politics, Allen came to realize she couldn’t survive the insider’s game of party caucuses and convention politics and withdrew from the race, narrowing the field to just Attorney General Maura Healey and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz.
– “The current ballot access procedure through the current caucus system is leading to a serious impoverishment of our democracy — fewer choices on the ballot, fewer non-traditional candidates able to enter the pipeline,” Allen said.
– Allen’s departure, which follows the earlier departure of former state senator Ben Downing, leaves Healey in the driver’s seat in the race for governor. Chang-Diaz is trying to rally lefty Democrats to her cause in the primary but may have difficulty reaching out to the broad political center that Healey appears to be targeting. Read more.
Climate progress: State environmental officials say their internal projections indicate Massachusetts surpassed its emission reduction goal for 2020, thanks in part to a downturn in economic activity caused by COVID-19. The goal was to be 25 percent below 1990 emission levels, and the still unofficial projection indicates the state will come in at 28.6 percent.
– On the down side, Kathleen Theoharides, the secretary of energy and environmental affairs, said previous projections about the state’s ability to reduce emissions through carbon sequestration were overly optimistic. She also says the state will probably need to embrace a cap and invest system for automobile fuels like the transportation climate initiative that Gov. Charlie Baker abandoned last year after Connecticut dropped out. Read more.
Natural gas transition: What to do with the state’s natural gas infrastructure becomes a tricky question as Massachusetts moves toward net zero emissions.The Baker administration favors an orderly transition away from natural gas, but some lawmakers want to let municipalities go cold turkey if they want. Read more.
Face-mask guidance eases: The Department of Public Health says fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to mask up in most indoor settings except under certain circumstances. Read more.
FROM AROUND THE WEB
After years of pressure from advocates, the House will take up a bill today that would let residents without legal immigration status get driver’s licenses. (Boston Globe)
An appeals court judge overturned Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s vaccine mandate for city workers. (GBH)
Massachusetts public health officials lift their recommendation for indoor mask wearing for people who are not high-risk for COVID. (Associated Press)
Chicopee state Rep. Joe Wagner says he will not run for reelection, opening up the seat he has held for 31 years. (MassLive) MassLive talks to several potential candidates considering a run for the seat.
Kevin Hayden, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to fill the Suffolk district attorney’s post vacated by Rachael Rollins, will launch a campaign today to win a full, four-year term in office. (Boston Herald) Hayden made it clear in a recent CommonWealth interview that he intended to run for the seat.
Frank Surillo, chairman of the Methuen Housing Authority, will run for state representative in the 4th Essex District, which includes Methuen and Lawrence. (Eagle-Tribune)
Republican Ludlow police officer James “Chip” Harrington and former Ludlow selectman Aaron Saunders, a Democrat, are planning to run for the House seat held by Rep. Jake Oliveira, who is running for Senate. (MassLive)
Some legislative leaders are seeking to stop the state from trying to recoup overpayments of unemployment benefits. (Salem News)
State officials unveiled plans for a return to a modified form of school accountability, drawing criticism from both those who think it goes too far and doesn’t go far enough in reimposing test-based standards. (Boston Globe)
The state Registry of Motor Vehicles has fired four employees who faked road test scores and granted driver’s licenses to 2,100 people who never actually took road tests. (Boston Herald)
A new federal report predicts sea levels will rise about a foot by 2050, with higher levels on the East and Gulf coasts. (WBUR)
The families of some of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut reach a $73 million settlement with Remington, the manufacturer of the assault weapon used as the murder weapon. (NPR)
Fifteen firefighters with cancer from Worcester, Boston, and Fall River sue 25 companies that used PFAS “forever chemicals” to manufacture gear for firefighters. The firefighters say toxic chemicals in their clothing caused their cancer. (Telegram & Gazette)
The New York Times takes a five-reporter-byline deep dive into the sordid back story that led to the firing of CNN host Chris Cuomo and the resignation of the network’s president, Jeff Zucker.PASSINGS
P.J. O’Rourke, the conservative satirist and political commentator and author, died at age 74. (New York Times)