|‘Our purpose overall is to support the superintendent,’ the Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr. said of the panel’s role.|
Little dissent by school board
Panel’s votes back superintendent Hub union decries a ‘rubber stamp’
The Boston School Committee members appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino to oversee city schools over nearly 18 years have unanimously voted for the administration’s proposals in almost every vote, according to data obtained by the Boston Teachers Union.
Boston School Committee members opposed the superintendent’s position just 25 times between January 1994 and this past July, the union reported, a rate of just over 1 percent.
Richard Stutman, president of the teachers union, called the committee “a rubber stamp for the superintendent.’’
“They’re always in favor of whatever the superintendent wants, without qualification, without debate,’’ Stutman said. “. . . Even when it isn’t unanimous, it’s still a vote in her favor.’’
The teachers’ union, which is in contract negotiations with the School Department, provided the analysis to the Globe, saying that the pattern of unanimity reflects an acquiescence by a board that should require more accountability from the administration, which has stumbled through recent cost-cutting proposals to close and reconfigure schools.
Until 1992, the city had an elected school committee, whose 13 members were often at odds with the mayor and his superintendent. The panel was also criticized for being too beholden to the teachers’ union, which can have great influence in local elections.
That system was rejected by a voter referendum, supported by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, in favor of a seven-member panel appointed by the mayor. A home rule petition submitted by the mayor and City Council was enacted by the Legislature in 1991, and the first appointed School Committee was seated in January 1992.
The union’s analysis covered only the period beginning with Menino’s election to his first full term, which began in January 1994. It found that 2,144 of 2,169 School Committee votes were unanimous and supportive of the superintendent’s position.
Early in his tenure, Menino championed the idea of an appointed School Committee as he vowed to make dramatic changes in the city’s school system or be held accountable.
“I want to be judged as your mayor by what happens now in the Boston public schools,’’ he said in his 1996 State of the City speech, in which he promised improvements within two terms.
That same year, he led a successful campaign to retain the appointed School Committee, with voters supporting the system by more than 2 to 1.
Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce said that the appointed School Committee has been successful and that it “takes the politics out of public education.’’
“It’s unfortunate that the teachers union during this difficult negotiation would play politics with education,’’ she said. “It is clear that the School Committee and the superintendent’s focus is on the education of our children and working out differences and coming to consensus for the betterment of their education.’’
The union’s analysis found that the rate of unanimity did not change much under different leaders over the years, but has peaked since the Rev. Gregory G. Groover Sr. took over as chairman in January 2009.
When several members of the School Committee voted to change the superintendent’s plan to close schools last December, the vote was particularly historic: Those were the first votes cast against an administration proposal under Groover’s leadership, the union found.
Groover acknowledged the board’s general support for the administration’s proposals, but said that the analysis overlooks the changes committee members are making to those proposals before they come to a vote.
“The point is well taken that the overwhelming majority of our votes tend to be unanimous,’’ Groover said. But he noted that “we do a lot of appropriate pushing back during the week leading up to the meetings.
“We are constantly meeting with [the superintendent’s] staff to express our viewpoints and to ventilate where we are deeply concerned, where we do not agree,’’ he said. “A lot of that pushing back takes place not in the public eye, but it definitely takes place in her changing and modifying her plan.’’
As an example, he cited Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s plan to close schools last year, which was delayed due to the committee’s request for more time to hear the concerns of affected school communities. More recently, he said, the School Committee got additional time to tour schools and review school transfers proposed by the superintendent.
Under pressure, Johnson later scrapped the proposal, which would have shifted Latin Academy into the closed Hyde Park High School building and move Boston Arts into Latin Academy’s building.
Those school closing debate grew so heated at times that some parents suggested the School Committee should be returned to an elected body that could be held accountable by voters.
The School Committee members, appointed by the mayor to serve staggered four-year terms, get a $7,500 stipend for their work. Two members, Groover and Michael D. O’Neill, decline to accept the payment, said Matthew Wilder, spokesman for the School Department.
Groover said the School Committee does try to hold the department accountable, most recently, by insisting on updates and improvements to a chronically late bus system.
“Our purpose overall is to support the superintendent,’’ Groover said. “At the same time, there is accountability. There are checks and balances. We do express to her when we disagree, sometimes publicly, sometimes meeting with her constantly throughout the week. Again, it’s not only in the public meetings or the public eye.’’
He noted that the union’s analysis, which only covered meetings through July, did not cover several dissenting (though losing) votes cast by members in recent months.
In September, two School Committee members voted against an agreement establishing greater cooperation between the School Department and independent charter schools in Boston. One of those members, Mary Tamer, also voted against an administration proposal last week to let an innovation school take over a recently closed elementary school.
Tamer said yesterday that she has never faced pressure from the mayor to follow a city agenda and that she often asks the superintendent and her staff questions between meetings to address the concerns of city residents, parents, and teachers.
“There’s a lot of work that happens between the meetings, and oftentimes proposals do change,’’ Tamer said. “. . . In many cases, the concerns that we raise are addressed.’’
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.