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Not a single ‘no’ vote

Boston’s appointed school committee is undemocratic by design

Lisa Green

What happens to our public institutions when democracy fails? When elected officials ignore the will of the people, governing bodies lose their independence, and the fundamental right to local democratic control is stripped away? It’s been said that dissent is essential to the health of the body politic; that debate is the oxygen of democracy, its heartbeat in “yes” and “no” votes. What happens when the only vote possible is “yes?”

The biggest system in Boston’s body politic is in crisis. For 30 years, our public schools have been subject to mayoral control over an appointed school committee that has never voted no on an action item, approving everything that’s been put before them since at least 1994 and 99% of the time doing so unanimously. This is a sign of democracy flatlining.

The unhealthiness was on full display in the School Committee’s confused March 22 budget vote.

Instead of having the specifics necessary to make informed decisions, Boston School Committee members were forced to vote without the full picture after their repeated requests for more information went unfulfilled. Instead of encouraging debate, we saw how Boston’s system of mayoral control creates a self-imposed sense of urgency so that anything but a yes vote on the budget is framed as an unconscionable attack. Instead of prioritizing the district’s long-term fiscal health, members prioritized the negative impact a “no” vote might have on the reputations of the superintendent and the mayor who selected her.

Effective governance empowers elected representatives to make informed decisions in their constituents’ best interest. In Boston, mayoral control leaves members unaware of even the basic consequences of their actions. After three decades of rubber-stamping budgets, last week even BPS’s top lawyer was unable to advise the committee on the consequences of a “no” vote. Was it so outside the realm of possibility that nobody had thought to look it up?

“We’re having this conversation about what our votes mean, and we don’t know and we won’t know. It moves to the place where you vote “yes” because you don’t know what happens if you vote ‘no,’” School Committee member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez said. “That’s an us problem.”

But it’s not a problem with the members or any one mayor; it’s a problem with the system. Mayoral control is built to do only one thing successfully: approve whatever the mayor wants. Thirty years of this system has produced a revolving door of superintendents, neglected school buildings and widening academic racial disparities.

Why would anyone want to keep a system this dysfunctional? In reality, almost nobody does. Voters in every precinct in Boston resoundingly voted for restoring an elected school committee. Boston’s city council passed a home rule petition to honor their mandate — and even the few councilors who voted no unequivocally called for an end to mayoral control.

Who supports keeping the current system? Unfortunately, it’s the one person with the power to block it. Boston would be voting in an elected school committee in November if Mayor Michelle Wu hadn’t vetoed it.

Wu says she wants to keep control so she can be held accountable to voters for Boston’s schools. But if she can ignore the clear demand of 99,000 voters, does she honestly believe that will happen? Or is she counting on the schools getting lost in the sea of other issues voters weigh when choosing their mayor — as it did for Mayors Menino and Walsh before her. Accountability has been the primary selling point of mayoral control for more than 30 years. But despite decades of outcry about the state of BPS, no mayor has lost reelection or even had a challenger come close.

Will Wu achieve the accountability she says she wants, or is it an impossible dream? Maybe we can help her. The next time you see a headline about “Boston’s School Committee,” replace it with “Michelle Wu.” When you see “Boston School Committee Closes Mission Hill School,” make it “Michelle Wu Closes Mission Hill School.” Next time someone says to you “Why can’t BPS make the buses arrive on time?” correct them: “Why can’t Michelle Wu make the buses run on time?”

We may not be able to get the elected school committee Bostonians voted for right now, but in the interim, perhaps we can make this system work as intended and finally hold Boston’s mayor accountable for BPS.

Lisa Green is chair of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee.

appointed school committee, boston politics, Boston School Committee