Advocates of an elected Boston School Committee should be careful about what they wish for

Boston school hallway in 1973. Photo (cc) from the Mayor Kevin White photographs.

Previously published at GBH News.

For the first time in a quarter century, serious efforts are under way to make fundamental changes to the Boston School Committee, whose members have been chosen by the mayor since 1992.

City Councilors Ricardo Arroyo and Julia Mejia have filed a home-rule petition with the state Legislature that would replace the current seven-member appointed body with a 13-member panel, all chosen by the voters. A nonbinding question will be on the ballot in November asking voters whether they want to return to an elected school committee. Mayoral candidate Michelle Wu has proposed a committee that would be partly elected and partly appointed by the mayor. Wu’s opponent, Annissa Essaibi George, has suggested a more modest change, with members being chosen by the mayor and city council.

With the exception of Essaibi George’s plan, the proposals are being touted as a way to restore democracy to the school system, overturning decades of having an appointed elite run public education in the city.

“The whole idea of giving up any vote for anything, [even if] it’s dog catcher, you don’t give it away,” said Jean Maguire, who lost her seat when the elected committee was abolished, in a recent interview with GBH News’ Meg Woolhouse. “That’s power!”

Yet in 1996, when voters defeated a referendum that would have dissolved the then-newly appointed committee and brought back an elected board, one of the main arguments was that putting the mayor firmly in charge of the school system was actually more democratic.

“They elect me,” then-Mayor Tom Menino told me in an interview for The Boston Phoenix at the time. “Hold me accountable for what’s going on in the schools. I’m willing to face the issue head-on.”

The idea that too much democracy can actually work against democracy was articulated in 1909 by the Progressive-era thinker Herbert Croly in his book “The Promise of American Life.” A founder of The New Republic, Croly argued that elections ought to be about big offices and big issues, and that minor elected offices should be eliminated as a way of cutting down on voter confusion and the corrupting influence of “the professional politician.”

“At present, an administration is organized chiefly upon the principle that the executive shall not be permitted to do much good for fear that he will do harm,” Croly wrote. “It ought to be organized on the principle that he shall have full power to do either well or ill, but that if he does do ill, he will have no defense against punishment.”

He added: “A democracy has no interest in making good government complicated, difficult, and costly. It has, on the contrary, every interest in so simplifying its machinery that only decisive decisions and choices are submitted to the voter.”

In 1996, there was another significant reason that voters were reluctant to return to an elected school committee: the legacy of racism. Dominated by white racists like John Kerrigan and Elvira “Pixie” Palladino, the school committee of the 1960s and ’70s resisted desegregation, forcing the intervention of the federal courts. By 1992, when then-Mayor Ray Flynn headed an effort to eliminate the elected committee, matters had improved and the board was more diverse. But memories were still fresh when the fate of the appointed committee appeared on the ballot in 1996.

“We have to remind voters that what they’re returning to is not an unknown alternative. It’s well-known. And its record is disastrous,” the Rev. Ray Hammond said at the time. Or as Ricardo Arroyo’s father, Felix Arroyo, then a member of the appointed school committee, wrote in Otherwise magazine: “Until the voting population reflects the general population of Boston, an elected school committee will not reflect the cultures and rich backgrounds of Boston’s children.” (Otherwise, by the way, was founded and edited by GBH News’ Jim Braude.)

Of course, what was true in 1996 is not necessarily true today. The appointed committee has had a rough year. A white member resigned in October after he was caught mocking the Asian names of several members of the public who were appearing before the panel. Two Latinx members stepped down after it was revealed that they had exchanged texts critical of white parents from West Roxbury. And despite the best efforts of many good people, the school system itself remains troubled.

So maybe it’s time to restore some measure of democracy to the school committee. Wu’s plan is incremental, and Arroyo himself, despite co-sponsoring the home-rule petition, has said he would not object to a hybrid committee of elected and appointed members.

But voters and officials ought to be careful about what they wish for. The next mayor will be a woman of color, which represents substantial progress. Yet all three Black candidates were eliminated in last week’s preliminary election. Boston has come a long way, but it still has a long way to go.

Advocates of an elected school committee might believe that we can’t do any worse. Well, we can, and we have. That doesn’t mean the mayor should be allowed to appoint the members in perpetuity. It does mean that changes need to be made carefully lest some new version of the bad old days is unleashed once again.

Thomas M. Menino, 1942-2014

Roxbury Community College PartnershipThe legendary Boston mayor Tom Menino has died. The city and region will be poorer without his presence. Keep his family in your hearts.

Photo (cc) by Eric Haynes/Office of Gov. Deval Patrick and published under a Creative Commons license. 

Best wishes to Mayor Menino

Best wishes and healing thoughts for Mayor Tom Menino and his family. The Boston Globe reports that Menino has suspended his book tour and his cancer treatments.

Tom Menino’s entertaining but light autobiography

Someday a book will be written that is worthy of Tom Menino’s long and consequential tenure as mayor of Boston. And Jack Beatty may well be the person who writes it.

“Mayor for a New America” is not that book. The autobiography, which Menino wrote in collaboration with Beatty, offers a short, punchy look at the former mayor’s life and career, focusing on his 20 years as Boston’s top elected official. Together they offer an entertaining overview of the Menino era but not a comprehensive examination.

Read the rest in The Boston Globe.

The Globe’s detailed look at student housing abuses

Shadow Campus

As a Northeastern professor, I’m certainly aware that many of our students live in less-than-ideal conditions. But to the extent that I’d given it much thought, I had assumed the squalor was largely of the students’ making (see this, for instance), compounded by greedy landlords who pack too many residents into their buildings.

According to The Boston Globe’s just-completed series “Shadow Campus,” that may be true, but it’s just the beginning. From Sunday’s account of a fatal fire, to Monday’s story on hazards elsewhere in the city, to today’s profile of landlord-from-hell Anwar Faisal, the series, by the paper’s Spotlight Team, documents the dark side of Boston’s student-fueled economy.

The series was many months in the making, and (full disclosure) was reported in part by student reporters, including some from Northeastern, who are not identified in the story. Certainly the large universities in Greater Boston — particularly Boston University, Boston College and Northeastern — will be challenged to build more on-campus housing. Given the failure of the city’s overwhelmed inspectional services to do better, the story also removes a bit of a shine from former mayor Tom Menino’s legacy and puts Mayor Marty Walsh on the spot.

Online, “Shadow Campus” has all the multimedia bells and whistles we’ve come to expect with long pieces: a beautifully designed, easy-to-read layout; lots of photos and video clips; and official documents the Globe dug up in the course of its reporting.

Overall, a very fine effort.

More: Here’s a complete list of everyone who worked on the series. Student reporters are listed under “Correspondents,” though not everyone in that category is a student.

Best wishes to Mayor Menino

Tom Menino retirement 2

He’s in his 70s now, and has suffered from serious illness for years. Even so, we were all stunned on Saturday night when The Boston Globe reported that former Boston mayor Tom Menino, just a few months into his working retirement, has advanced inoperable cancer.

It sounds hollow to indulge in clichés like “he’s a fighter” and “he can beat this.” Of course, everyone hopes he responds well to treatment and is able to enjoy a high quality of life for as long as possible.  But I think it makes the most sense to wish the mayor and his family our best and keep them in our thoughts — and prayers, if you’re so inclined — as he begins this final chapter of his life.

Photo (cc) by Eric Haynes for the Office of Gov. Deval Patrick and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Tom Menino’s days of future past

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My one extended interview with Boston Mayor Tom Menino came in the summer of 1997 as part of a package I was doing for the Boston Phoenix on “The future of Boston.” (Check out Kristen Goodfriend’s enhancement of John Singleton Copley’s Paul Revere portrait.)

I remember showing up in Menino’s brightly lit City Hall office overlooking Faneuil Hall on a warm afternoon. Given his famed struggles with the English language, I found myself surprised and relieved at how articulate he was. Why, I asked myself, do people say this guy can’t talk?

Later, when I started to transcribe the tape, I realized I had a mess on my hands: without the mayor’s facial expressions and hand gestures, at least half the meaning was gone. Menino is a master of non-verbal communication, and here I was trying to cobble together a Q&A for print.

I did the best I could. As you’ll see, he said nothing particularly startling that day. He put forth some fairly bold ideas, and not all of them came to pass — expanding Copley Square to the edge of the Boston Public Library and remaking the Stalinesque City Hall Plaza, to name two.

“People get mad when I say this, but visionaries don’t accomplish anything,” Menino told me that day. “You have to have an idea of how you want to move the city forward.” Hmmm … isn’t that the definition of a visionary? Never mind.

Ex-Phoenician David Bernstein’s big Menino win

Tom Menino in 2008

My former Boston Phoenix colleague David Bernstein, now looking for work, scored a big win on Wednesday, reporting before anyone that Mayor Tom Menino would not seek re-election. With the Phoenix now history, Bernstein posted the news on his blog — first as rumor, later as confirmed fact.

Given that Menino gave major interviews Wednesday to the Boston Globe and the Boston Herald, it strikes me as exceedingly likely that a media embargo was in place — and I received additional, direct confirmation of that this morning. Which just goes to show the futility of embargoes in the Internet age. Good for Bernstein for operating outside the system, even if it’s not by his own choice. News organizations might consider rethinking their participation in such attempts at media manipulation.

Both the Globe and the Herald offer excellent coverage of the Menino era today. And how about Globe editor Brian McGrory jumping back into the fray by interviewing Menino and writing a column? McGrory was the Globe’s signature voice for years. Returning to the trenches for one day was a smart move.

More: Andrew Beaujon of Poynter has a nice Storify on how Bernstein’s scoop played out on Twitter.

Photo (cc) by Dan4th Nicholas and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Mayor Menino versus Chick-fil-A, Round 2

I think it’s very difficult for the city’s top elected official to go after a person, a company or some other organization without making it sound like a governmental threat.

Nevertheless, Mayor Tom Menino’s letter imploring Chick-fil-A to stay out of Boston (via Universal Hub) does a reasonably good job of getting his point across while acknowledging that he’s only expressing his personal views.

If you read between the lines, he seems to back off a bit from what he told the Boston Herald: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

Meanwhile, Gizmodo reports that Chick-fil-A’s homophobia-induced meltdown continues.

Earlier coverage.

Mayor Menino, Chick-fil-A and the First Amendment

There may be more to say later, but I want to offer a few quick thoughts on Mayor Tom Menino’s declaration that he intends to keep Chick-fil-A out of Boston because of the company president’s opposition to same-sex marriage, as reported by Greg Turner of the Boston Herald.

Chick-fil-A has long been at odds with the LGBT community. But things got a lot worse this week, when company president Dan Cathy said, according to the Washington Post, that “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.”

That brought this response from Menino: “Chick-fil-A doesn’t belong in Boston. You can’t have a business in the city of Boston that discriminates against a population. We’re an open city, we’re a city that’s at the forefront of inclusion.”

My gut reaction is that Menino is wrong. It seems to me that there wouldn’t be any end to this if government officials decided to approve or reject business licenses on the basis of their executives’ religious or political beliefs. There are First Amendment issues at stake as well. Can’t the head of a company say what he thinks without risking the wrath of the government?

Starbucks, as you no doubt know, has earned a lot of praise for its support of gay civil rights. There are plenty of municipalities out there whose officials might be tempted to deny Starbucks the right to operate inside their borders. And they could point to Menino for support.

Earlier this year my employer, Northeastern University, disinvited Chick-fil-A from opening in the student center after a number of people protested. I was among those who signed an online petition asking to keep Chick-fil-A off campus. But I see a huge difference between voluntarily inviting a business to operate on your private property, as would have been the case at Northeastern, and acting to keep a business off someone else’s private property, as Menino proposes to do.

Chick-fil-A has a serious issue on its hands, and it may well have to do some damage control that goes beyond the cosmetic. The San Jose Mercury News reports that residents in Mountain View, Calif., want to keep the chain out of their community. And we can expect to see a lot more of that.

Menino actually missed his best argument for keeping Chick-fil-A out. Restaurant executives apparently want to open in a tourist-heavy area along the Freedom Trail. If I were doling out food licenses in Boston, I would be very reluctant to hand over such a prime location to a business that is closed on Sundays.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.