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Council presses for vote on elected school committee

Measure would need approval from mayor, Legislature

Isaiah Thompson

Members of the City Council are preparing to vote to reestablish an elected school committee in Boston for the first time in more than 30 years, since the elected committee model was abolished and replaced by a mayor-appointed committee in 1991, and more than a year after Boston residents voted overwhelmingly in favor of an elected committee in a non-binding ballot referendum. 

If passed by the Council, the measures would still face an uncertain future. Currently in the form of two home rule petitions, the legislation would still have to be signed by Mayor Michelle Wu, sent on to Beacon Hill and approved by state lawmakers in order to become law — neither of which are given outcomes.

Originally a single home rule petition, the legislation has been bifurcated, as of press time, into two separate home rule petitions, the first of which would create a 13-member elected school committee consisting of nine district members, corresponding with the city’s nine council districts, and four at-large members who would be elected citywide.

A second petition would add two voting student positions to the body, elected by the Boston Public Schools Student Advisory Council, for a total of 15 voting members.

Details could still change, pending public input and inter-Council negotiations, but District 5 City Councilor Ricardo Arroyo, chair of the Council’s Committee on Government Operations, says he intends to bring the bills before the body for a vote at its Feb. 15 meeting.

The petitions appear ready to pass the Council, despite various hesitations among some members, including over the question of including two fully-fledged voting student committee members — a point of concern raised repeatedly by Council President Ed Flynn, who noted in an email to the Banner that student membership was not included in the citywide ballot measure.

Arroyo, who supports the student member provisions, told the Banner he and co-sponsor Julia Mejia decided to split the bill to allow the creation of an elected school committee even if the question of student membership gets tied up in the Council, in City Hall or on Beacon Hill.

Still, the compromise doesn’t sit well with advocates for student representation.

“These students represent the entire student body of the BPS district,” said Naesoj Ware, a former member of the Student Advisory Council. “Not only that, but these students are the ones impacted by the decisions of the school committee … I think it’s only right that they get a vote.”

Arroyo said he believes the current legislation reflects the will of voters as expressed in the November 2021 ballot referendum.

“I feel almost entirely confident that this will reflect what was voted on — which is different than confident it will get enacted at the next steps,” Arroyo said.

Lisa Green, chair of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee — a group which evolved from proponents of the 2021 ballot measure – commends the Council’s taking action.

“I think voters expect to be able to elect their members at the earliest opportunity. And the City Council seems to be moving forward with that intent,” Green said.

She added, “It’s really one of the few things that everybody agrees on … And if we get this sort of agreement on the City Council, which we don’t often get, I would expect the mayor to take it seriously and go ahead and sign it, so people can get their right to vote restored. I think that could be a big part of her legacy, to reverse that wrong.”

The mayor’s support is not guaranteed. Wu has been so far noticeably noncommittal on the matter which, unlike a city ordinance, cannot move forward without her signature and does not require the mayor to take timely action. Passage in the state legislature, where home rule petitions often go to die without action, is likewise uncertain.

Should the measures advance, exactly what a transition to an elected school committee in Boston might look like is unclear.

Arroyo said that while he believes it is technically possible an election could take place this calendar year, in the city’s upcoming municipal elections, such a scenario is unlikely. Provisions in the petition might, however, allow for an off-year election — in 2024, say — to be followed by regular two-year municipal election cycles starting in 2025.

Other questions remain. Some Council members supportive of the measure remain dedicated to ensuring robust student representation.

“I think it’s incredibly important that if we decide that we want students to sit on a school committee, which is something we already have, that we make sure that they’re not tokenized,” said at-large Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune.

District 9 Councilor Liz Breadon, meanwhile, has raised concerns about the potential for school committee elections to draw in outside political spending — and influence.

“I think education has become a political football across the country … and it’s a big concern of mine that some outside entity with a lot of money came come in and try to buy seats,” Breadon said in a recent working session on the bills.

Responding, Arroyo said he shared those concerns but noted that political spending is generally regulated at the state level in Massachusetts.

Such concerns have not escaped the attention of even the measure’s most ardent supporters.

“Democracy is messy, right?” said Green, pointing out that plenty of political money already flows into city elections, including for the mayor, who currently appoints all school committee members.

“I think there’s money in it either way,” said Green, arguing that moving to (partially) local school committee elections could dampen that influence.

“In your neighborhood,” Green said, “you know who the people are.”