Urban Dilemma: Elect Or Appoint Members Of the School Board?

Jean McGuire once flew fighter aircraft in training missions during World War II. But she didn't see combat until she was elected to Boston's school board in the 1980s.

"One member was going to duke it out with another member over some issue," says the former school board official. Even though the meetings could be divisive, Ms. McGuire says an elected school board - rather than an appointed one - is a basic democratic right and ensures that citizens have a say in how their schools are run. This November, she hopes Bostonians will vote to bring back an elected school board.

The Hub, like a handful of other cities, has abandoned elective representation on its school board. Fed up with school-board infighting over curriculum, resources, and race, the Massachusetts legislature five years ago handed full control of the nation's oldest public school system to Boston's mayor. Now this decision has come up for citizen approval, and early polls show strong support for a return to an elected board.

The debate here over the controversial ballot initiative raises the same question that vexes many other big cities: What's the best way to attract competent people to run troubled urban schools - through the personnel office or through the ballot box?

While the vast majority of the nation's public schools are run by elected officials, a growing number of cities are joining Boston in adopting an appointed school board system. In Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Providence, R.I., city leaders say they need more control over school policy and budgets to keep schools running.

"Maybe some of you weren't around to witness the spectacle of an elected school board," Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said at a recent breakfast meeting with local businessmen. "Consider yourself lucky. Their behavior provided me with some of my most colorful memories."

Accomplishments of the mayor's appointed school board read like a laundry list of education reforms: The board hired a tough new superintendent with a reputation for school improvement. It negotiated a four-year contract with the teacher's union to avoid yearly strikes. It encouraged parent-teacher councils to influence policy in each school. It set new high standards in reading, math, and science. And it has offered balanced budgets four years in a row.

Appointed board members "tend to look at the broader issues and tend not to get into turf-like issues," says Michael Contompasis, headmaster of the prestigious Boston Latin School. "They're apolitical, although one could argue that nothing in this city is apolitical."

Even some former critics have converted to the appointed cause.

"The fact that we had to run [for re-election] every two years made people more conscious of getting press time" than of making the schools better, says Jean Sullivan McKeigue, a former elected board member. "There was no focused effort to improve the system."

Yet some experts say there's no evidence that an appointed school board is inherently better than an elected one. Most of the local school districts in Virginia, they note, abandoned an appointed system last year and have switched to elected school boards.

"Consensus certainly helps in getting things done, and the only way to guarantee consensus is to only name like-minded people" to the school board, says Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools in Washington. "But an elected board can create the same unified stance. It depends on who is on the board more than how they got there."

For their part, Boston proponents of an elected school board call Question 2 nothing less than a defense of representative democracy. They say voters, and minorities in particular, must have a say in how their tax dollars are spent.

"I'm confident that the electorate is sophisticated enough to choose the best people," says Gareth Saunders, a Boston city council member and proponent of an elected board. "I don't want to delegate that power to a third party, who in this case is the mayor."

To Mr. Saunders, the hurly burly of past school board meetings is part of "the beauty of democracy. You take the good, the bad, and the ugly. But seriously, you're condemning the present system on past board members. There's a new crop of talent in Boston," and voters should have the opportunity to put them into power.

But Mr. Casserly says that changing to an elected board now would prove disruptive. "The Boston appointed board has done particularly well, and if you've got a good board, the last thing you want to do is get rid of it," he says. "They're hard to find."

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