As Mayor Marty Walsh prepares to depart Boston to become President Joe Biden’s labor secretary in Washington, D.C., he leaves behind an appointed school committee that holds allegiance to no one and has lost the trust of the parents and students they were selected to serve. Without anyone left behind to defend the status quo of the appointed board, Bostonians are at a unique crossroads in the history of Boston Public Schools governance.
In 1993, Bostonians found themselves in a very similar position. Mayor Ray Flynn had been selected by former President Bill Clinton as the ambassador to the Vatican. As Flynn waited to depart for his new position in Rome, he contemplated his legacy as the architect of the newly appointed school board in 1992. Although the governance structure had only been in place for a little over a year, mutiny was erupting on the committee — just as leaders within the Black community began to organize to reinstate an elected board.
Flynn was haunted by his decision to replace the elected school committee, knowing the change had disenfranchised voters and angered communities of color in Boston. In his waning days as mayor of Boston, he publicly questioned whether his own school committee had outlived its usefulness.
“Let me acknowledge that taking the right to vote away from people is not a pleasant thing for me," Flynn said in July 1993. "It’s a big issue in the minority community. I know it. I still hear it ... and it’s a very valid concern.”
The appointed school committee was struggling with its own identity. In a letter to Flynn in March 1993, the appointed committee lamented the loss of support from the business and academic communities who had advocated for the abolition of the elected committee. The board acknowledged to Flynn that “we are not satisfied with our progress” and “our biggest weakness is in the area of accountability."
In response to these admissions from his own school committee, Flynn said, “When I argued for an appointed school board, I spoke about the power of accountability ... Accountability was the critical element of change. That’s how it should work. But it hasn’t worked that way. It’s time to change that.”
In a letter written to the candidates hoping to replace him, Flynn expressed his regrets and his preference for the return to an elected committee. He wrote, “Despite the accomplishments of the appointed board, I feel compelled to acknowledge that the loss of the vote for School Committee members has remained a bone in the throat of many Bostonians. The appointed board has done what it had to do. It has made the hard decisions. It has accomplished a clean break with the past.”
When acting Mayor Tom Menino was elected to replace Flynn in November 1993, Flynn’s dream to accelerate the return to an elected school committee was deferred. Now almost three decades later, Boston remains the only municipality in Massachusetts that cannot elect its own school committee.
Walsh’s appointed school committee has been mired in turmoil throughout his second term. After voting “present” on a controversial vote to close two high schools in late 2018, Regina Robinson was not reappointed to the board several weeks later. Walsh’s school committee has acted as no more than a rubber stamp for his wishes — voting unanimously on nearly every vote in 2019, according to a Boston Herald analysis. With the downfall of Chairman Michael Loconto after making racist remarks on a hot mic, Bostonians find themselves no better off than where we started in 1991: without representation, accountability or definitive direction to address the challenges facing the students of Boston Public Schools.
Walsh may not leave behind letters expressing his regret about the pace of progress in Boston Public Schools with the same grace and honesty as Flynn. But the next mayor of Boston must revisit the governance structure of the Boston School Committee immediately. We are at a critical time in our city and our nation when the right to vote for those who represent us must take precedence above those who seek to consolidate power in the hands of one.
A Boston Public Schools parent, Kristin Johnson has long been active in grass-roots efforts to improve the city's school system. She is a member of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity.