What we can learn from the School Committee’s selection process

On February 15, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Part 2:  Implications

shelton_webBy William C. Shelton

 (The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville News belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville News, its staff or publishers.)

Last month the School Committee chose a replacement for their colleague, Maureen Bastardi, who had been appointed Ward 1 Alderman. They did so through an open process that involved soliciting interest from potential candidates and publicly interviewing them.

The process brought praise from the parents and guardians who have been most active in efforts to improve Somerville Schools. It evoked dismay and criticism from those who favor the traditional method, whereby the outgoing School Committee member selects her own replacement.


Stepping back from the arguments for and against the School Committee’s actions affords us a broader perspective. It reveals how decades of demographic shift are beginning to change Somerville’s political culture.


That culture evolved in a time when rich networks of extended families, neighborhoods, churches, unions, fraternal organizations, youth sports, ethnic groups and civic organizations intertwined to weave a strong community fabric, as well as to fulfill many functions now performed by government.  They provided multiple ways for people to know each other and to discuss the day’s politics.


Those politics were personal in several senses.  They were about whether your garbage got picked up, your street got repaired, or your kid got a summer job.  Through relationship networks, voters personally knew politicians who, in turn, maintained influence by developing personal loyalties and dispensing favors.


Broadly shared values and assumptions ensured relatively little conflict regarding public policy. Politics resembled competition among sports teams more than conflict over policy choices. When one “team” won the mayor’s office, they could reward loyalty with jobs and the delivery of city services.


Three institutions put constraints on the enormous powers that the city charter gives the mayor. Aldermen regularly initiated substantial legislation. They vigorously debated proposed measures, often deciding them by votes of 6-to-5. And they did not hesitate to criticize mayoral actions.


The Somerville Journal covered issues in depth and was tenacious in pursuing evidence.


In the 1970s, Citizen groups like Somerville United Neighborhoods, Citizens for Participation in Politics, and the Somerville Taxpayers’ Association fought patronage, exposed backroom deals, and opposed waste and fraud.


In the context of a relatively homogenous electorate, limited policy conflicts, a thriving industrial economy, and vibrant nongovernmental organizations that met many community needs, this was an efficient form of government.


But over time, a mass exodus of Old Somerville families, and the economic necessity that required both adults in those families who remained here to work outside the home, unraveled the dense relationship networks. The citizen groups faded away, and corporate out-of-towners bought the Somerville Journal, steadily reducing its staff.


Immigrants and people who make their living as professionals replaced departing families. In 1970, 15% of people living here were foreign-born, almost all of whom were of European descent. In 2010, 29% were foreign-born, and 9% from Europe.


In 1970, 7% of ‘Villens over age 25 held bachelor’s degrees. Today, that proportion is 53%.


Immigrants have not become a political force. Many are ineligible to vote, and many others’ attention is dominated by the demands of economic survival.


The newcomer professionals brought political expectations at odds with Somerville’s favor/relationship-based political culture.  In their view, government should identify key challenges, review all available evidence to craft solutions, and work to implement those solutions as cost-effectively as possible.


But until recently, those newcomers were politically inert. Most remained unaware and uninvolved in local politics.  Too often, they moved to the suburbs when their children reached school age, selling their Somerville homes for top dollar.


So the favor/relationship-based political culture continued, while many of Old-Somerville civil-society’s moderating influences did not. Today, the Board of Aldermen rarely initiates significant legislation and rarely opposes the mayor’s wishes.


Patronage is alive and well. Those unfamiliar with specific cases can find objective indicators in the proportion of mayoral campaign contributions donated by city employees, and the time that employees take off to work on elections.


Personally, I like many of the changes that I’ve seen in our city since Joe Curtatone became mayor. But those changes have had minimal impact on power relationships and substantive decision-making.


The city’s Comprehensive Plan, for example, models the kind of process favored by professionals—participatory, data-driven, analytical, transparent, and prescriptive. Yet the Plan has little force when a mayoral preference is involved. Witness the Planning Board’s unanimous vote last month to amend the Zoning Ordinance so as to enable development of a one-story 100,000-square-foot big-box store in Assembly Square.


But demographic and economic forces are bringing newcomer professionals into the local political process. Since the turn of the millennium, an increasing number of them have chosen to put down roots and raise a family in Somerville. And since the 2008 financial meltdown, they find it more difficult to accumulate equity in their homes, sell out, and leave.


Between 2001 and last year, Somerville Schools’ enrollment dropped by 18%. Now that trend is reversing. Our city’s birthrate declined to an historic low in 2006, but has been increasing since. It will probably continue to grow because, at 30%, the proportion of Somerville’s population that’s in their child-rearing years is well above average.


Concerned about their kids’ education, many younger professionals have entered the public sphere and begun to acquaint themselves with Somerville politics. They have become active in parent teacher associations, school councils, youth activities, and in establishing networks to exchange information and mobilize. In doing so, they are advocating for immigrant families as well as their own.


Mobilize they did when the Ward 1 School Committee position became vacant, successfully lobbying the Committee to reject the tradition of the outgoing member’s choosing her successor.


This offended some members of the old guard. Alderman Sean O’Donovan complained that it was “political,” as if in the past, resigning aldermen and School Committee members did not confine their replacement selection to those who were on their “team.” He should know, having been initially appointed, rather than elected, to the School Committee and then the Board of Aldermen.


The parents who lobbied the School Committee, publicized the vacancy, and recruited candidates are influential beyond their numbers. They express that influence through emerging networks like Somerville-4-Schools and Progress Together for Somerville.


It makes intuitive sense that schools would be the political entry point for newcomers. Indeed, this has been the pattern in middle-class communities across the U.S.


Once involved, the activists tend not to confine themselves to education matters. If this pattern holds true here, we can anticipate changes in how the people’s business gets done and who does it.


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