Boston School Committee: How Governance Can Advance Equity: Part 1 - A Historical Look Back

March 30, 2022

Learning from History

In Boston’s recent nonbinding referendum, 79 percent of voters favored an elected school committee over an appointed one. That conversation is not over, however, and now is the time for exploration and learning. How did we get to where we are and how do we make sure that any change results in a more equitable school district and city?

In the first of a three-part series to explore issues of Boston School Committee governance, the Boston Foundation welcomed three illustrious players in the long-time fight to improve Boston Public Schools to share insights from the history of that struggle.

After a welcome from Boston Foundation President and CEO M. Lee Pelton, TBF’s Education to Career Graduate Intern Sakeenah Chapman took on the moderator’s mantle. 

click here to watch the webinar

She invited panelists Joseph Feaster (Of Counsel, McKenzie & Associates, P.C.; Chairman, Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts; Past President, Boston Branch NAACP), Irvin Scott (Senior Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Education; former Chief Academic Officer, Boston Public Schools), and Neil Sullivan (Executive Director, Boston Private Industry Council; former Chief Policy Advisor to Mayor Raymond L. Flynn) to share a bit from their own experiences in regard to the Boston Public Schools system.

Recalling the pendulum swings in relationships between the mayor, the School Committee, and the City Council since the 1970s, and noting the changing demographics in the district’s school-age population since the 1990s, the trio illustrated the sometimes unanticipated results of decisions as well as the importance of how questions are worded, and who votes.

Sullivan recounted how the “political leadership was disenfranchised by the court decision [to manage desegregation]” and even “traumatized” by the violence around its implementation. They stepped back from it, he said, given that the mayor had little power. In Mayor Flynn’s second term, education found its way back on the agenda with two important commissions studying how to make improvements. One looked at governance, recommending a “hybrid” school committee, with some members elected and some appointed, but the referendum presented only a yes-no question on switching to an appointed committee. In 1989 the move to an appointed committee passed by only around 600 votes.

Feaster, who as a young lawyer had been involved in desegregation issues, had dealt with an elected five-member School Committee before there were any Black members. By the 1980s, the elected School Committee had 13 members and five of them were Black. That seemed like progress so he was initially opposed to an appointed Committee. His thinking changed though, as the schools did not reflect improvement. “People viewed the School Committee as a stepping stone to other elected office,” he observed. “If something’s not working, let’s change it.” In 1996, he supported an appointed Committee but admits to being almost ready for no School Committee now: “Governance is not the answer,” he said. “Give me any model that will improve education!”

Scott stressed that a School Committee, like facilities and other elements of a school system, is just a means to an end. We need to focus on the end we want. “The City has to come to an agreement on that” he said. Calling himself agnostic on appointment versus election school, he emphasized that those in leadership positions in the system must build trust, enumerating the ways to do that: 1) competence, 2) respect, 3) integrity, and 4) personal regard. For him the driving question in considering governance change is: “How do we get those for whom the system is working to care as passionately as those for whom the system is not working?”

As Feaster said, “Our schools are a four-legged stool—administration, teachers, parents, and students—but the legs of the stool are not even.”

Sullivan in the end declared himself optimistic, saying, “The 30-somethings are in charge. Many of them didn’t grow up here. They don’t know our political squabbles; they don’t have the scars from the 1970s and ‘80s.” Scott agreed with the hope placed in new leadership, but added, “If the new generation doesn’t know where today’s inequities come from, they won’t be able to attack them.”

Stay tuned for the ongoing conversation about school governance! The next forum in the series will be on April 28, 2022, on Zoom.