Published On: May 30, 2011

One Consecutive Streak of 520 Unanimous “Yes” Votes in Support of District Policy Spans 5 years, 103 Mtgs 
The appointed Boston School Committee has voted with unanimity 98.81% of the time over the last 18 years and close to 2200 votes, a study conducted by the BTU has determined. 2187 of the 2189 votes, 98.81% of them unanimous, were ‘yes’ votes to affirm a superintendent’s  proposal or an internal School Committee policy motion. In the past 18 years, only two policy proposals not supported by the superintendent have come to a vote, and both went down to defeat.The pattern of unanimity of go-along votes has been unchanged since January 1994.* Under four separate chairpersons, four superintendents, and hundreds of controversial issues–from school bus contracts to school closings to curriculum decisions to the student assignment process–one constant has remained: The votes taken by the appointed school committee have been unanimous in favor of the superintendent’s recommendation. Or nearly so.

(*The Board was first appointed in 1/1992, though official records provided to the BTU only date from 1/1994. Unofficial records from calendar year 1993 reveal that there were 112 school committee votes. 111 were unanimous.The first and only person to vote ‘no’ on any motion that first year was Dr. Paul Parks.)

Unanimity Supports Status Quo Through Years; Little Room for Debate

Officially from 1/3/1994 through 7/20/11, there were 2169 school committee votes.  2144–all but 25–have been unanimous and supportive of the superintendent’s position. Some opine that that unanimity is the result of a strong consensus after a well-developed planning process. And, further, that decisions come forward only after careful vetting and great deliberation. Others argue that, with the myriad of problems facing the BPS, a little debate and perhaps even disagreement with the status quo ought to surface–at least occasionally.

Different School Committee Chairpersons; Same Results

The rate of unanimity has not changed much through the last 18 years. Under the first chairperson Felix Arroyo (1/94-12/95), the rate of unanimity was 98.92%. Under Robert Gittens (1/96-12/97), it was 99.01%; under Dr. Elizabeth Reilinger (1/98-12/08), 98.1%; and under Reverend Groover (1/09-present), 98.81%. A most remarkable string of consecutive unanimous votes occurred in the Reilinger era. From 12/3/03 through 9/24/08, over 103 meetings, there was a string of 520 consecutive, unanimous ‘yes’ votes. The vote that broke the string: a vote to approve the superintendent’s proposal to contract with Teach for America. That vote was 5-1. School Committee member Raynor dissented, and Chairperson Reilinger abstained.

rubber stamp
Rubber Stamp Committee Has Supported Supt. 100% of the time, 98.85% unanimously

The high percentage of unanimity seen in the Groover era has raised some curiosity, as it has appeared to casual observers that the appointed school committee under his watch has become, shall we say, more independent than under his predecessors. Sadly, that has not turned out to be the case.

Through the end of the July, 2011, with Reverend Groover as chairperson, there have been 232 votes. 230 have been unanimous. The only two non-unanimous votes were on school closing amendments offered last December. For each of those two amendments, one member of the appointed school board proposed to eliminate a particular school from the overall closing plan. Each vote failed, and then the entire school closing plan was put to a vote. The final vote on the closing plan was of course unanimous, as the committee adopted the superintendent’s plan. Some school committee observers pointed to the offering of the amendments as face-saving gestures only in the aftermath of loud and persistent community resistance from parents, students, and teachers. Put another way, it was ‘safe’ for some committee members to vote for an amendment or two that was sure to fail.

Good Policy Decisions Require Checks and Balances

Where does this leave us? Members of the school community desperately need a set of checks and balances on school policy. It cannot happen under the current structure. Under the structure in place, the superintendent and her team develop a policy, submit it to the committee, and the school committee unanimously approves it. We need to spark some change, or at least a discussion, about certain current–and failed–policies. That will likely not happen under the current set up. Regrettably, there is no legitimate public forum to bring up matters of concern.

Today, under the appointed school board, there is all too often a single, unchallenged voice coming from Court St. A single voice on school closings. A single voice on how to fix the late bus problem. A single voice on student assignments. A single voice on how to stall in contract negotiations. A single voice on how to avoid implementing necessary changes in ELL instruction and so on. A school district with a myriad of problems needs more than a single voice to offer ideas and solutions..

Hybrid Board w/ Some Elected, Some Appointed Seen Promising

As long as there is an appointed school committee the uniformity of unanimity will surely not change. Many, including a few city councilors, have voiced the opinion that they are willing to support a hybrid school board, composed of some elected members and some appointed. That is an idea worth exploring. For one thing, it would restore a little democracy to a process that surely needs and deserves it. People could elect their own representatives. For another, good ideas need to come from a variety of sources. Today there is only one source.

(Incidentally, there is a student representative on the appointed school board, Carlos Rojas, who is a senior at Boston Latin School. He asks great questions, pays attention, and is…a breath of fresh air. His independent posture has, too, been shared by his predecessors through the years.)

See coverage in today’s Boston Globe.

Note: All school committee voting records were provided to the BTU under a Freedom of Information request. Careful readers will note that there were 8 votes recorded on three issues on 6/22/94. The mayor sat in for those three votes, as is his right.  Those votes, too, were unanimous.

Methodology: All official and reported school committee votes were tabulated for this report. In the early years there were a few scattered School Committee subcommittee meetings that were recorded, and those votes, though few in number, were also reported and included. While data is unaudited, it has been careful reviewed.

Back to the Future–When the appointed school board was first installed in January 1992, the loss of our right to vote for our school board memvbers was a very controversial and contentious isuse. A report of the commiottee’s first year was written for the Bostomn Umnion Teacher. Even then their votingt record was, well, distinctive. See here.

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