Boston Voters Endorse Mayor’s Plan To Shift to an Appointed School Board

By William Snider — November 15, 1989 3 min read
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Mayor Raymond Flynn’s drive to restructure the Boston School Committee received a boost last week when voters narrowly approved a nonbinding resolution to change the committee from an elected to an appointed body.

The come-from-behind victory gives Mr. Flynn additional ammunition for an expected drive next year to persuade the city council and Massachusetts lawmakers to approve the changes, supporters of the initiative said last week.

“It’s very clear that people want a change,” said Ellen Guiney, the Mayor’s chief education adviser. The vote, she said, is a sign of “widespread dissatisfaction with the school committee.”

Nevertheless, the Mayor is likely to face an uphill fight because of strong opposition from the school committee, some local lawmakers, and several leaders of the city’s minority groups.

“Mayor Flynn is making a major political boo-boo in thinking that black people are going to give up their franchise to vote when we spent two centuries to get it,” said Jean M. McGuire, a member of the school committee. “We are not going to accept an appointed school committee.”

Ms. McGuire was one of 11 incumbents returned to their seats on the committee last week--a sign, she and others said, that the public is not as dissatisfied with the committee as the Mayor claims. The other two seats on the 13-member committee were open and filled by newcomers.

But Ms. Guiney discounted this interpretation, saying that only a few of the incumbents were challenged by credible candidates.

“It’s not so much that the people on the committee are bad,” the Mayor’s aide added. “The issue really is a structure that can’t come together and set policy to put the schools in the right direction. There are too many individual agendas.”

Boston is one of the few major cities that have elected school boards with no power to raise revenue. The city council allocates all school aid, regardless of its source.

The school committee has been an elected body since it was formed more than 200 years ago, but its size and composition have undergone repeated changes. The most recent alteration came six years ago, when the committee was expanded to its current size, and nine of its members became subject to election by district.

The current committee has frequently been criticized as unwieldy and slow to act on the district’s pressing problems, but last week’s referendum marked the first time that Mayor Flynn staked his political reputation on a school-related issue.

Opinion polls had indicated that the referendum was headed for defeat, but a last-minute media blitz, paid for by prominent business leaders, apparently persuaded voters to support the proposal.

The referendum also had to overcome perceptions that it represented a power grab by Mr. Flynn, who has failed to quell speculation that he plans to run for governor next year.

Those perceptions were heightened when the Mayor persuaded the city council to drop an alternate proposal that would have reduced the size of the elected committee but granted it the power to levy taxes.

Ms. McGuire said she expects the city’s minority leadership to counter the Mayor’s efforts with a drive to give the school committee taxing authority. “We will have to,” she said. “It’s the only way we can have some accountability.”

“The very people who have put the school system in jeopardy [through their control over the school budget] are saying, ‘Look, the school system is terrible,”’ she added.

Observers said Mayor Flynn has won only the first battle in what is expected to be a prolonged political war.

The referendum’s narrow margin of victory means “the Mayor can’t say it is a mandate for change,” said one school official, who declined to be identified further.

On the other hand, the official said, “the school committee can’t sit back and say, ‘We whipped the Mayor; we don’t have anything to worry about.’ He certainly has left hot breath on their backs.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 1989 edition of Education Week as Boston Voters Endorse Mayor’s Plan To Shift to an Appointed School Board


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