Boston voters to decide whether to directly elect school committee

Government Center, the location of Boston City Hall, is pictured. Tobias Fu / The Tufts Daily

A referendum on whether to allow Boston voters to elect school committee members will appear on the city’s ballot this November after the Boston City Council unanimously approved the ballot question on Sept. 15

Out of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts, Boston is the only one where voters do not directly elect their school committee members. Instead, the committee has been appointed by the city’s mayor since 1992, a change first suggested by then-Mayor Raymond Flynn.

This November, a question will appear on Boston ballots asking voters whether they believe the city should return to an election system for its school committee. The referendum is expected to pass, as a poll conducted in June by The Boston Globe and Suffolk University found that only 6% of Bostonians support the current system of a fully appointed committee, 48% support a committee elected by voters and selected by the mayor and 39% support a fully elected one.

Lisa Green, a member of the steering committee of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, explained how Boston’s education system could change if the referendum were to pass.

“Automatically you’d have a situation where your decision makers would be representing the people who have elected them and would be accountable to them,” Green said. “Often over the past 30 years, we’ve witnessed parents and community members and educators, especially Black and brown people, come and have to beg for resources that their schools lack… but [the committee] doesn’t listen to them, so it’s not accountable to them.”

Suleika Soto, a parent organizer for the Boston Education Justice Alliance, agreed with Green’s assessment of how the ballot question could change families’ experiences with the Boston Public Schools.

“I think it would be a more democratic process,” Soto said. “We’re finally going to have a voice. If Black and brown families feel like their kids are not being served the way that they should be, we’re finally going to … be able to vote for someone who we think is going to be able to provide those quality schools that we need.”

In 1992, as a result of the transition to an appointment system, school committee members suddenly found themselves pushed out of their elected seats. One of these members was Jean McGuire, the first Black woman to serve on the committee and former executive director of the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO). She described the experience of losing her seat in 1992.

“Why are we going backwards? We got away from King George in England, and we’re going backwards,” McGuire, who earned her master’s degree from Tufts, said.

Green agreed with McGuire that the switch to an appointed school committee was a step in the wrong direction, making committee members accountable only to the mayor and their policy.

“They’re serving the interests of the point of view of one person, the mayor,” Green said. “We’ve seen in the past, in Boston, that the school committee has virtually always voted unanimously in lockstep with the mayor’s desires.”

Similarly, McGuire explained that the lack of resources in predominantly Black schools in Boston was what inspired her to run for school committee in the first place in 1981.

“I taught 43 kids in 36 seats in the oldest school that Louisa May Alcott built in 1843… I had no pencils,” McGuire said. “Paint chips hanging from the ceiling… 30 and 40 and 50 kids in a room… that’s why I had to run for school committee, because it was questioned, who are we educating, and for what?

In the wake of the city council’s vote to approve the ballot question, Green stated that she felt hopeful about the referendum’s chances.

“It was really encouraging that there was a unanimous vote,” Green said. “I think it’s hard to ignore that this is a voting rights issue… You can really hear the public’s dissatisfaction with the current system, so I think [the councilors] all have to acknowledge that the people want change.”

Soto echoed Green’s optimism about the city council vote.

“They heard from the people,” she said. “I’m glad that it was passed unanimously. I think that people are finally starting to be heard, so I’m very excited for what’s to come.”

Now 90 years old, McGuire hinted that her involvement with the Boston education system may not be over just yet.

“I’m not in public office now, but if they have an elected school committee, I’m running,” McGuire said.