By 2-1 Ratio, Boston Retains Appointed Board
Boston voters came down strongly last week in favor of preserving their mayorally appointed school board, handing Mayor Thomas M. Menino and district leaders a resounding victory.
By a ratio of more than 2-to-1, voters rejected a ballot question that would have scrapped the seven-member board and reinstated the type of 13-member elected panel that governed the district from 1984 to 1992.
Supporters of the appointed school board interpreted the results as a powerful vote of confidence in the mayor, the board, and Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant, who left a high-ranking post in the U.S. Department of Education to assume control of the 63,000-student district in October 1995.
"Years from now, when we look back on the revitalization of the Boston public schools, we will remember this day as a milestone," Mr. Menino declared on election night. "The message is that we are on the right track and we should continue along that track."
Opponents, by contrast, portrayed the outcome as an example of the power of the purse and the political prowess of a mayor with legions of city workers on his payroll.
While supporters of an elected board mustered only about $5,000 for their campaign, the appointed board's defenders raised roughly $600,000, largely from the business community. Much of that war chest was spent on television and radio commercials featuring direct appeals from the popular mayor.
"That gave them a huge advantage over us," said Gareth R. Saunders, a city council member who campaigned strenuously for an elected panel.
Boston's Nov. 5 referendum attracted interest elsewhere in part because of Mr. Menino's stature as one of a small fraternity of big-city mayors who have moved aggressively to assume responsibility for their troubled public schools. ("Mayors Adopt 'Action Agenda' for Education," July 10, 1996, and "In Boston, Voters To Decide Whether To Elect Members," Oct. 9, 1996.)
Mayor's Role Stressed
Perhaps the most prominent of these mayors, Richard M. Daley of Chicago, visited Boston just days before the referendum to lend his support to the backers of the appointed board.
Until the final weeks of the campaign, polls showed public opinion leaning strongly in favor of reviving the elected school committee, as school boards are known in Massachusetts.
Although recent polls had suggested that the public sentiment had shifted, the lopsided nature of last week's outcome startled many observers.
Throughout the campaign, Mr. Menino drummed home the point that he expected the public to hold him accountable at the voting booth for the schools' performance. The appeal was aimed in part at countering the perception that the absence of an elected board deprived voters of an essential democratic right.
Pleading for more time to follow through on newly launched reforms, the mayor and his allies argued that it had only been in the past year that conditions were ripe for genuine progress.
Not until the arrival of Mr. Payzant, they said, was there a favorable "alignment" of the mayor, a board composed entirely of his appointees, and a superintendent hired by the board.
While striving to keep his distance from the campaign, Mr. Payzant emphasized the value of continuity in holding the district to its five-year reform plan, which involves new citywide instructional standards and assessments.
"Everybody's working together now," Jane Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the superintendent, said. "People are ready to do the hard work of change."
Robert P. Gittens, the chairman of the appointed board, said he generally viewed the outcome as an endorsement of the district's direction. But he said the board was not deaf to criticisms of its performance that arose during the campaign, including complaints that it had remained aloof from the concerns of ordinary residents.
Mr. Gittens made clear that he thinks such criticisms were largely a bad rap.
But as the board moves ahead in the next year to tackle questions involving desegregation, student assignment, and other thorny issues, he vowed to open more avenues for public input.
Mr. Menino, who is up for re-election next fall, stressed that his hard-won victory was no license to slack off, urging Bostonians "to invest in public education in any way you can."
"This campaign may be over," the mayor said, "but our work in the schools has just begun."