Boston Group: Council Should Run Schools

By Robert C. Johnston — February 28, 2001 2 min read
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A group of parent activists in Boston wants to turn over the leadership of the city’s public schools to the 13-member City Council, rather than the current seven-member panel that is picked by the mayor.

Boston’s Children First filed a petition this month that asks the council to put a measure on the November ballot that would make the change.

The organizers of the petition have until Aug. 8 to get it qualified for the ballot either by city council approval or a signature drive. If the request is denied, the group sponsoring the petition says it is willing to gather the 24,000 votes that would be needed to place it on the November ballot.

“Our goal is very clear: We are trying to improve the schools,” said Ann F. Walsh, the president of Boston’s Children First, which sued the district in 1999 to end race-based school assignments. The district voluntarily ended the practice later that year.

Before 1991, the district was run by an elected, 13-member school committee, as local school boards are called in Massachusetts. That year, then- Gov. William F. Weld, a Republican, signed state legislation giving the city’s mayor the power to appoint the school committee. Mr. Weld said the district was “in desperate need of fundamental change.”

Since then, the 64,000-student district has reformed its curriculum, instituted mandatory summer programs, and taken other steps that have helped raise student achievement.

But Ms. Walsh, who sees the improvements as “minuscule,” said that Mayor Thomas M. Menino is not accountable enough for the conditions of the schools, and that is one reason she wants to see a change.

“We can’t hold him accountable,” Ms. Walsh argued. “He’s too removed to call and tell that something’s wrong with the schools.”

Rejection in 1996

Basically, Ms. Walsh and her allies believe that City Council members would be more responsive to local constituents.

“Accountability and responsiveness are our main concerns,” said Ms. Walsh, whose organization has invited council members to attend public forums on the petition over the next few months.

Boston voters have already had a chance to overturn the mayorally appointed school board, but declined to do so. In 1996, voters rejected by a ratio of 2-to-1 a ballot measure that would have returned school control to an elected school committee.

A spokesman for Mr. Menino said the mayor believes that the 1996 vote settled the matter, and that in light of recent improvements in the district, this is not the time to make changes.

Superintendent of Schools Thomas W. Payzant said it was too early to tell if the move to change governance would succeed.

He added, though, that running a large urban school district would be a lot for the City Council to handle, and could be the first such model in the nation.

“I don’t think Boston wants to be the first,” Mr. Payzant said. “It runs counter to any model of governance you see across the country.”

Ms. Walsh rejected the argument that the council has too much on its plate already to run the school district. “It’s not a function of ‘can they?’” she said, “but one of staffing.”

Staff Writer Karla Scoon Reid contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the February 28, 2001 edition of Education Week as Boston Group: Council Should Run Schools


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