Who should decide who sits on the school board? The mayor? Voters? Both?
This fall, you might get a chance to answer that question in a voting booth. But you can cast a digital ballot right now.
You can weigh in on that school board question—and a related one—by filling out the two “ballot” boxes in this story.
Help Us Expand Democracy
The ballots are part of a new project here at the New Haven Independent. Called “True Vote,” it aims to involve voters in helping not just to decide who gets elected to make public decisions every year or two, but to create more discussion and register public opinion about what those decisions should be.
The definition of democracy often comes down to choosing among candidates for public office, an important civic responsibility but only one feature of a healthy civic culture and political system. True Vote is aimed at involving voters in the issues themselves, and making voting a regular exercise all year long with our online polls.
We’ll be experimenting with a new way of doing that—by regular posting of True Vote questions on local and statewide issues, accompanied by “explainer” articles laying out various sides of the issues. The polls will stay open for a week. The True Vote system will keep a running tally of ballots cast all week. Check back to see how the voting is going, and feel free to make the case for your position on the issue in the comments section below.
You’ll need to register to vote the first time, and votes are limited to one per person. In addition to voting and posting comments on the stories, please chip in with ideas about how we can develop this idea.
This Week’s Issue: The Board of Ed’s Makeup
The question of what kind of school board is best isn’t just a theoretical one. The city has a once-a-decade chance to make fundamental changes to the Board of Ed, as part of the charter revision process.
Last week, a special commission (pictured) voted to recommend that the city move to a “hybrid” Board of Ed, with five members appointed by the mayor and two members elected by New Haven voters. If the Board of Aldermen approves that recommendation, it will appear as a yes-or-no question on the general election ballot in November.
The commission also voted to recommend that the mayor not be allowed to sit on the Board of Ed. That would mark another change from the current system. More on that below.
At stake is oversight of New Haven’s public education system, including the direction of the city’s ambitious school reform efforts.
The Board of Ed controls 45 schools, where 1,600 teachers educate 20,759 students. It commands an annual budget of nearly $400 million, over which city lawmakers do not have line-by-line edit power.
Boards of Ed can come in a wide variety of flavors. Variations include the length of terms, number of members, qualification requirements, and the inclusion of ex officio members or non-voting members. All school boards, however, fall into three main categories: fully elected, fully appointed, or somewhere in between. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
Since time immemorial, New Haven’s Board of Ed has comprised seven members, appointed by the mayor to four-year terms. Although Superintendent Reggie Mayo is currently a member of the school board, the superintendent is not guaranteed a seat on the board under current city law. The mayor currently sits on the board as an eighth member.
Pro: Among the arguments made by proponents of an appointed Board of Ed:
• It makes the mayor wholly accountable for the quality of public schools. The mayor alone holds the reins, so the mayor alone can be praised or blamed for public education outcomes.
• It allows for a more focused and unified Board of Ed. The mayor selects school board members who buy into his vision and will all pull in the same direction.
• It leads to a board made of people with relevant expertise, not just political savvy or ambition. The mayor can appoint smart and talented people who might not otherwise run for an elected position.
These arguments have all been made by city Corporation Counsel Victor Bolden, mayoral candidate Henry Fernandez, current Mayor John DeStefano, and Assistant Superintendent Garth Harries, who’s in the running to become the superintendent in July when Mayo retires.
Con: The arguments against an appointed Board of Ed most often stem from a view that it gives the mayor too much power and limits the role of outside voices:
With an appointed board, people can only control who’s on the board indirectly, by voting for or against the mayor every two years.
While the mayor is solely accountable for education, he’s also solely accountable for all sorts of other city issues. A voter who likes the mayor’s record on everything except education would be in a quandary in the voting booth.
Elected Boards of Ed are the norm in Connecticut. New Haven is the only municipality without one.
• Elected Boards of Ed increase public involvement. Elections introduce new ideas about education and foster public discussion about them.
• Elected boards are more accountable. Members have to follow through on their campaign promises, or be voted off the board. Unlike a mayor, who’s responsible for all parts of city government, elected Board of Ed members are accountable only for education and can be removed by voters.
• Elected school boards are more transparent. Members of an elected Board of Ed answer to the voters, not the mayor. They’re thus less likely to turn inward and to share information only with each other or the mayor.
Con: Opponents of an elected Board of Ed argue that it would become too politicized. Members of an elected Board of Ed would be distracted by power struggles and posturing. They would be less interested in education than advancing themselves or consolidating their power. They should be able to make their decisions without the interference of politics; the voters have a democratic check on the board’s direction by electing a mayor every two years.
In the midst of a school reform push, it would be dangerous to switch to an elected system, opponents argue. Reform efforts could quickly get derailed by fractious in-fighting
Since both elected and appointed Boards of Ed have pluses and minuses, why not split the difference?
That’s the argument for a “hybrid” Board of Ed, comprising some appointed members and some elected. It’s the argument made by mayoral candidate and East Rock Aldermen Justin Elicker in a 7-minute YouTube video he posted in January. Click the play arrow to watch.
After dozens of people at public hearings told the Charter Revision Commission they want at least a partially elected Board of Ed, the commissioners came to the same conclusion as Elicker. Their proposal calls for a board with two elected seats, each voted in by a different half of the city.
So which is it? What’s the best way to bring create a Board of Ed that can make the city’s public school to be the best they can be? Cast your vote in the box at the top of the story. Tell us your reasons in the comments section at the bottom of this article.
On Or Off?
A related question is the choice between a Board of Ed that includes the mayor, or one that excludes him.
Currently, the mayor is a voting member of the school board. He attends all the meetings and takes a direct role in all Board of Ed decisions.
It wasn’t always thus. (Mayor DeStefano rarely attended Board of Ed meetings until an Independent story reported on his attendance record, and he started pushing a school reform initiative.)
Under the current charter, the mayor is required to sit on the Board of Ed. But the Charter Revision Commission is recommending that the charter be changed to the opposite, the the mayor be prohibited from sitting on the school board.
Commissioners said last week that they are trying to limit the mayor from “intimidating” school board members with his presence, and stifling the Board of Ed through micromanagement.
That’s a position shared by mayoral candidates Elicker and Gary Holder-Winfield. Both men said they would likely not sit on the school board if elected mayor, in order to maintain the board’s independence.
Mayoral candidate Fernandez, however, takes the opposite position. He said the mayor needs to take an active role on the board, to be accountable for education. People elect mayors to set an agenda and play an active role in crucial policies like the schools, according to this argument.
What’s your take on it? Should the mayor sit on the school board, either as a voting or non-voting member? Cast your ballot in the box posted here.