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Eileen McNamara: In a school system where only 13 percent of the students are white, how does a school board appointed by, and beholden to, a white mayor represent anything other than the political disenfranchisement of people of color? (Stephan Savoia/AP)

If one of the ideological twins running for mayor of Boston wants to distinguish himself, he could start by calling for the restoration of democracy in the governance of the Boston Public Schools.

City Councilor John Connolly and State Representative Marty Walsh are competing, rhetorically at least, to become the “education mayor” in a city where 42 percent of parents polled last spring considered leaving Boston because of the quality of the schools and 64 percent of likely voters surveyed last summer favored a return to an elected school committee.

No one then alive forgets the racism, patronage and venality that defined the Boston School Committee in the decades before it was abolished by popular vote in 1992. But the past is not always prologue.

But the candidates themselves are sticking with the status quo, embracing the power of the mayor alone to appoint the seven-member school board as a hedge against the corruption and venality that once characterized the elected Boston School Committee. No one then alive forgets the racism, patronage and venality that defined the Boston School Committee in the decades before it was abolished by popular vote in 1992. But the past is not always prologue. (If it were, the governor of Illinois would be an appointed position given that four of the state’s last seven governors have gone to prison.)

Why would a school committee elected now signal an inevitable return to the demagoguery of John Kerrigan, the histrionics of Pixie Palladino or the craven thievery of Paul Ellison? The parents of the 57,000 children now attending the city’s public schools likely have never heard of those long-deceased school committee members. In a school system where only 13 percent of the students are white, how does a school board appointed by, and beholden to, a white mayor represent anything other than the political disenfranchisement of people of color?

Martin Walsh and John Connolly. (AP)

Martin Walsh and John Connolly. (AP)

The Boston School Committee didn’t invent political malfeasance. School board members in North Andover, Westborough, Norwood, Westport and Stoughton have been arrested for everything from assault and drunk driving to embezzlement and home invasion in the last few years, according to a quick Google search. Did anyone suggest disenfranchising voters in those suburbs to protect them from their bad choices at the ballot box?

No one disputes that Mayor Thomas M. Menino has appointed more well-intentioned and ethnically diverse school committee members than those elected before, during and after the crisis over court-ordered busing to desegregate the Boston schools. And, yes, the last time voters had a chance to express an opinion at the polls, they rejected a return to an elected school board. But that was in 1996, 17 years ago. A lot has changed in Boston since then but one thing has not: the schools remain the biggest source of voter discontent, fueling the exodus of young families from the city.

At a candidates’ forum last summer, Connolly acknowledged his doubts about the wisdom of an appointed school committee. “I’ve watched it in action in my six years on the City Council and it’s a rubber stamp for the mayor. No real critical element. No real ability to demand that we do better,” he said. But an almost pathological fear of union influence trumped his respect for independent oversight. “My worry on the elected is that we’re going to have the union come in and spend a lot of money to elect members and we’re going to have other special interest groups come in and spend a lot of money to elect members.”

The schools remain the biggest source of voter discontent, fueling the exodus of young families from the city.

Democracy sure is a messy business.

For his part, Walsh might tinker with the panel but he, too, would retain sole control over its membership. “I think there’s an opportunity here for the new mayor,” he said at the same candidates’ forum. “Look to the school committee and the way it’s made up and restructure the school committee so that every community, every zone that’s out there today, will have an opportunity to have representation.”

How paternal of him. Didn’t we used to have elections for that?

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Tags: Boston, History, Race

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