Which is more accountable to the public and less likely to become politicized: An elected Board of Education? Or one appointed by the mayor?
An elected Board of Ed would comprise independent people who’ve proven they’re motivated and engaged, said Christine Bartlett-Josie.
An appointed Board of Ed ensures that people who aren’t professional politicians are put in charge, said Matt Smith.
The city should have a hybrid board of elected and appointed members, with requirements on what kinds of people the mayor must appoint, suggested Rachel Heerema.
Those views were exchanged Monday night at the Grove co-working space on Orange Street downtown as part of a public conversation about charter revision, the once-a-decade opportunity to change the city’s foundational legal document.
As the city gears up to possibly change the charter, a group of three politically minded friends in town are organizing a series of meetings to stir conversation and prompt public participation in the charter revision process. They held their first meeting Monday at the Grove.
The New Haven charter contains the laws that establish the most basic elements of New Haven government: length of terms, the number of seats on the Board of Aldermen, the city’s code of ethics.
This year, as part of a legally required at-least-once-every-10-years process, the Board of Aldermen has begun the process of charter revision. City lawmakers recently appointed a special commission of 15 people tasked with examining the charter and proposing any revisions they deem necessary. Proposed changes that are approved by the Board of Aldermen will be placed on the November 2013 ballot for a city-wide referendum.
The charter revision commission will hold its first meeting Tuesday evening in City Hall, where it is expected to elect a chair. The commission must complete its work and submit its proposed changes by May 2013. It must hold a minimum of two public hearings along the way.
Elm City Magna Carta
Monday’s meeting at the Grove came about as a result of a conversation among Heerema, Nate Bixby, and Aaron Goode. All share connections to the Grove, along with an interest in New Haven, city politics, and civic engagement. They set up a Facebook page and organized the meeting.
“We hope to get people excited about charter revision,” Heerema said as she set up chairs before Monday’s meeting.
She chuckled. Charter change is a “wonky kind of thing to get excited about,” she noted.
At least 30 people in New Haven are wonky enough to share Heerema’s excitement. That’s how many showed up to take part in the conversation, including four aldermen and a state representative (pictured), making a total of at least two possible mayoral candidates in the room.
Goode kicked off the evening with a presentation about the charter and its possible revision.
“It’s our own little Elm City magna carta,” he said. It’s like the U.S. Constitution, but it has 39 chapters instead of only seven, he said. “So it’s got to be better.”
The meeting then broke into smaller “working groups” to discuss topics offered by members of the group assembled. Among the proffered ideas:
The city should find a new way to measure success, such as “Gross National Happiness” instead of “Gross Domestic Product.” The mayor and aldermen ought to have term limits. The city should improve “transparency” when it comes to posting notice of public meetings. The charter revision commission should examine all boards and commissions, how they are formed, and whether they should be appointed or elected. Should the Board of Aldermen be given a new name, one that’s “gender free or gender neutral? Like, the “Board of Alders”? Or how about just “City Council”? How many aldermen should the city have? Should the city have aldermen “at-large” who represent the interests of the entire city?
Elected, Appointed, Or Hybrid?
Heerema (at right in photo), who suggested talking about the Board of Ed, ended up in a group with several others.
Eliza Halsey (at left), part of a parent group involved in public school issues, spoke up in favor of having a hybrid Board of Ed, with most of the members appointed by the mayor and the rest elected.
Christine Bartlett-Josie, another public school mom, said the whole board should be elected.
Matt Smith, the mayor’s liaison to the Board of Aldermen, said an elected board presents the danger that “politics takes over the conversation.”
Many larger cities engaged in school reform have appointed Boards of Ed, which allow for the “shaping of a vision” that’s “unencumbered by politics,” Smith said.
Goode said it comes down to “a question of values.” Do you want “concentrated accountability”—a mayor who is accountable for the entire board and can be voted out if people aren’t happy? Or do you want “community responsiveness”—an elected board that directly represents the will of voters?
Halsey offered a complication: If the mayor is good on most issues, but bad on school, it can be hard to hold him or her accountable. Also, if the board is appointed, you “can get good folks on the board” who wouldn’t consider running for a position.
On the other hand, on an elected school board, you would get members who have had to campaign, have had to “put themselves out there” and prove they know the issues, said Bartlett-Josie (pictured at the top of the story).
That means you also would get the people who have the ability to raise money and take time off from their jobs to campaign, Smith pointed out.
The other value of having people run for the board is campaigns the discussion of school issues to the front doors of people throughout the city, said Bartlett-Josie. She said her neighbors can’t tell you who’s on the Board of Ed, but they know who their aldermen is. That’s because the aldermen have to knock on their doors and win their vote.
Heerema said she would like to see a hybrid Board of Ed with “proportional” representation, not members “at-large.” In other words, each neighborhood should be able to elect a member.
Also, maybe the mayor should be required to appoint to the Board of Ed someone from the citywide PTO, a student, “people with marginalized voices,” Heerema said.
Should there be qualification requirements for Board of Ed members? wondered Darryl Brackeen (pictured), a social studies teacher and former Westville aldermanic candidate. Some of the issues the board deals with can get “pretty technical,” he said.
Hereema pointed out that aldermen are requiring the charter revision commission ponder a similar questions: Should the deputy parks director be a certified arborist?
Later, as the meeting wrapped up, participants offered three-word impressions of the evening: “Totally dug it. … An exciting start. … More change needed. … Lots to explore. … I wasn’t listening.”
Bixby (pictured) offered the final one: “We’re not done.”
He asked for a show of hands of who would be willing to testify and to bring others to testify at a public hearing of the charter revision. Nearly everyone put up a hand, indicating the commission will get an earful as it moves forward with its work of changing the city’s “magna carta.”