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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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  • DoTheJob

    This is offensive on so many levels. Really offensive.

    “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?”

    Everyone else in Boston seems to think a white mayor can represent all of Boston. Especially the three candidates of color who endorsed Marty Walsh. Guess you just can’t see past the color of a person’s skin.

    • Anne Wheelock

      If Boston had an elected school committee, I believe we’d be hearing a lot more about issues like the school-to-prison pipeline problem – wherein push-out practices and zero-tolerance policies in schools set the stage for overincarceration of African-American and Latinos in our prison system. This topic is a matter of great concern in the African-American community – it was raised by no fewer than three speakers at a recent NAACP dinner – but it is never raised in a system where the mayor (whose topic of choice is more likely to be walk-to schools) appoints school committee members who rarely raise any issue not on his agenda, especially one that challenges the status quo. As far as I can tell, neither candidae for mayor has ever even mentioned this as a problem that needs attention.

    • gorilla monsoon

      You hit the nasty ,racial nail right on its head.

  • Anne Wheelock

    In the 1980s, Boston’s elected school committee, contrary to some accounts, was actually not characterized by racism, patronage, or venality. Jean Maguire, John O’Bryant, Tom O’Reilly, John Nucci, Peggy Davis Mullen and their colleagues were genuinely focused on student success and took significant steps to make schools more hospitable for students at risk of dropping out. One example: During their tenure, they debated, then approved policies that reversed the widespread practice of turning tardy students away at the door and established programs that allowed vulnerable students the chance to advance a grade midway through the school year. Both worked to prevent dropping out, or at least to delay dropping out until later grades. This happened because the school committee was responsive to community needs, not to the public relations needs of a mayor who for years has minimized the dropout rate by referring only to the annual rate and calling it negligible.

  • Dr.Tom Johnson

    I was a teacher in the Boston Schools when patronage was rampant; when bribes for administrative positions were required (at least in my case for an administrative position I was nominated for) ; when pre-payment to get a passing score on the teacher exam was encouraged, when elected officials held random pay-as-you-go soirees at the aquarium as ‘fund raisers’ and shop stewards in the schools encouraged anyone with an ambition for a promotion to buy a ticket from them, and attend. The BTU leadership was at times a savvy ethical observer and at times only a ‘wink and a nod’ away from complicity in the good ole boy culture that dominated. (See Dr. Joe Cronin’s Book on Boston Schools). On the other hand, the Harvard-Boston program was created by an elected committee as was the “Boston Compact” that began a systematic introspection of the school system. That being said, the appointed school committee in Boston was a breath of fresh air in that the mayor appointed it, similar to many other cities around the country.
    If there is a fallback to the appointed committee that includes an elected committee in part or in whole, It would be important to have an independent Audit and Oversight committee, kind of like an Inspector General to insure that the kind of politics than ran rampant, at least during my nine years in Boston at English High School and at Copley square High School during the sixties never rears its political head again. Boston has won awards for its schools. It has many very talented educators and administrators within its ranks. It is difficult enough for teachers to plan and deliver instruction to students who in turn must overcome lots of sensory stimulation that distracts them from learning, without having teachers looking over their shoulders for predator politicians looking to create mischief for their own gain.

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