Hot topics | Coronavirus pandemic

One of the biggest battles Boston's next mayor will face is keeping control of public schools

One of the biggest battles Boston's next mayor will face is keeping control of public schools

The Great Divide is a Boston-based investigative team that investigates educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Subscribe to our newsletter and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.

With no shortage of problems in the Boston Public Schools, City Councilors Annissa Essibi George and Michelle Wu appear determined to take them all on as mayor. Each of them has presented broad goals that call for timely school buses, high schools in every neighborhood, better school buildings, more social and mental health services for students, greater access to early education, and regaining trust in the school system.

The most difficult task the next mayor might have to face is one that hasnt confronted a Boston mayor in more than two decades: maintaining control of the citys schools. And on two fronts, an intrusion may occur.

The state has indicated it may take control of the Boston Public Schools if its performance doesnt improve quickly enough in the coming years, while a coalition of parents and advocacy groups, fed up with mayoral control over the School Committee, is pushing to replace it with one elected by voters.

In a city where previous mayors have struggled to keep BPS on thier toes, improvements will need to be swift and decisive. The quest to overhaul the school system, no matter who is elected, will be far more personal than any other mayor in recent memory. Both Wu and Essaibi George have children enrolled in Boston schools, and both are former teachers at East Boston High.

The question for families, students, and voters is who will actually move the needle, said Will Austin, the Boston Schools Fund's chief executive officer, which works with public and private schools in the city. Its more about governance and management than big picture visions. There are a slew of excellent ideas in education. Its not whether or not you have the will or talent to make them happen.

Boston Public Schools are in a state of crisis, and the problems are mounting. Can the system save itself?

Both candidates say they are up to the challenge of overhauling the Boston schools and neither wants the district to be taken over by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Following a scathing review in March 2020 that exposed widespread ineffectiveness and persistently low achievement at dozens of schools, the agency demanded broad changes in the system within three years.

Wu stated in an interview last week that there are big issues that we cannot continue to push down the road. She added that she would improve the schools performance and programs. The DESE report identified flaws and broken systems that have gotten worse and worse year after year. Therefore, it is urgent and very urgent to take action, but we must do it.

Essaibi George said ensuring that every neighborhood has top-notch schools is a task that must be completed soon.

It may be a big challenge, but Im up for it, she said. I look forward to that challenge. Our children, our families, and our school communities deserve that. It has to be our citys responsibility to provide that, and Im committed to doing that.

The more immediate fight may however be over the School Committee's mayoral control. Public opinion polls so far indicate a clear support for an elected committee among voters, who will weigh in at the polling on Nov. 2. A Suffolk/Globe/NBC 10 poll last week found that 69 percent of respondents supported an elected committee, while just 16 percent opposed it.

While the ballot question is non-binding, it may put the new mayor in a political position. None of the candidates back a fully elected School Committee. Wu is open to a majority of seats elected by voters and the rest appointed by the mayor, believing it would be beneficial for the Mayor and superintendent to build public support for their policy proposals.

Essaibi George wants to keep the board, despite the fact that she would like to allow the City Council to play a part in the process. The appointed board, which first met in 1992, had initially been credited with restoring leadership stability to BPS and a period of incremental progress, but that record has been marred in recent years by revolving doors, declining student achievement, and various controversies.

Any changes will require approval from the City Council, mayor, the state Legislature, and voters.

Nonetheless, if voters were asked to give the plan formal approval, an economically able mayor could turn public opinion against an elected board. In 1996, the year when a question was last on the ballot, former mayor Thomas M. Menino did exactly that. Menino orchestrated a strong ground campaign that ended the binding ballot question with numbing victory. Public opinion polls ten years earlier showed overwhelmingly support for an elected board, but Menhino pushed for sweeping changes.

With Wu leading in the polls, advocates of an elected board are optimistic that some of its members will be chosen by voters. Advocates contend that elected members would be more responsive to educators, parents, students, and the wider community because they would remain accountable to voters.

Lisa Green of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee stated, Its one method to give more power to people, noting the city's increasing diversity.

Visit our Globe's Great Divide coverage for more information on equality, race, and opportunity in schools.

In some ways, the battles over the School Committee and the candidates education agendas reflect the unfinished business of former mayor Martin J. Walsh, who was appointed US labor secretary earlier this year after nearly eight years in office.

Like Essaibi George and Wu, he made education a centerpiece of his mayoral campaigns and administration, but his record was mixed.

Walsh's failure to secure public support for many of his major education initiatives was a major stumbling block, and one that could derail if he were elected mayor.

For instance, his $1 billion BuildBPS school construction program, which called for consolidating buildings, provoked resistance from families whose schools would be closing or feared their schools might close. Walsh also faced criticism from parents and educators after he and former Superintendent Tommy Chang decided to parted ways in 2018 without involvement from the School Committee, even though the board technically had the power to terminate his contract.

If she decides to drop working with current Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who was hired two years ago by the School Committee Walsh, she will have to avoid repeating such a scenario. Cassellius has repeatedly received criticism from principals, the teachers union, and families on a wide range of issues, including tardy buses, but has also racked up victories in areas like raising graduation requirements.

No candidate has made a definitive decision on Casselliuss future, although both appear willing to give her.

Because of the uncertainty of a new superintendent search, Im inclined to keep her and work alongside her because of her inability to make all the changes she wants to achieve, said Essaibi George, noting that the epidemic prevented Cassellius from making all of them.

Wu took a similar note.

She added, We need stability in our system." Superintendent Cassellius was our fifth district leader in seven years when she began, and Im looking forward to having the tough discussions about how we ensure accountability for progress, she said.

The new mayor will be uniquely positioned to carry out her education agenda from the beginning and make any decisions about Cassellius, gaining quickly majority control of the seven-member School Committee. The terms of two council members, who were temporarily appointed by Acting Mayor Kim Janey, will expire with her departure, and two more seats will be reappointed in January. During her first year in office, a new mayor would typically only make about two appointments.

Rafaela Polanco is the first Boston School Committee member to not speak fluent English. Heres how shere filling communication gaps for dozens of families.

But a new mayor may also need to address unforeseen circumstances as soon as the ballots are counted. The school bus drivers contract extension is set to expire on Nov. 15, the day before inauguration, and their union is preparing to press for a new deal if it doesnt by then.

In a recent posting on its website, the union accused school officials and Transdev, their transportation provider, of employing union busting tactics by refusing to make concessions. The union claimed that failure to reach a new contract deal will be the biggest challenge the new mayor will face, saying the time for fruitless negotiations is over, and the time to prepare to hit the bricks is now.

Bobby Jenkins, a longtime education advocate, said that trust will be crucial in building support for any educational changes and that all stakeholders must be involved in the development of those policies.

The next mayor has to understand all the neighborhoods in Boston and the city as a whole, he said. She must earn the trust and ensure that parent involvement is extremely important...The next mayor must be proactive rather than reactive.

Both Wu and Essaibi George, highlighting their BPS credentials, have made family involvement a major component of their education goals.

Some students say they hope that whoever is elected will deliver on the promises they made in their proposed education proposals, such as increasing mental health support for students and reducing school inequalities.

Ariana Monroig, a junior at the OBryant School of Math and Science and formerly pictured with the Hyde Square Task Force, believes there should be more resources. Id love to see more equal educational opportunities for everyone, rather than for some specific groups of students who appear better than others, he says.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

James Vaznis can be contacted at james.vazmnus@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.

You may also like: