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

On February 1, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

Part 1:  The facts

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.)

In December, long-time Ward 1 Alderman Bill Roche resigned from the Board and was replaced by the Ward’s School Committee Member Maureen Bastardi. The process that the School Committee conducted in selecting her replacement reveals much about how our city’s long-term demographic changes are beginning to affect its political culture.

In this column, I’ll lay out the facts of what happened. In the next, I want to discuss their implications. Neither are simple.

On Saturday, December 8th, Ms. Bastardi learned that Bill Roche was resigning from the Board of Alderman and would nominate her to replace him. This came as a complete surprise, and she quickly informed her School Committee colleagues.

The City Charter says that if a vacancy occurs less than one year before the election that would fill it, “the remaining members shall appoint” a replacement to serve until that election. It is silent about how to do so.

Paul Bockelman, who was then School Committee Chairman, tells me that as soon as he received the news, he hoped that the Committee would conduct an “open” appointment process in two senses:  candidacy would be open to any qualified Ward 1 voter, and every element of the process would be open to the public.

Five days after Ms. Bastardi learned of Mr. Roche’s resignation, the Board of Aldermen appointed her to replace him. The same day, she informed the School Committee that she intended to nominate Steven Roix to replace her. Mr. Roix is a civil engineer who has lived in Ward 1 since 2004 and, by all accounts, is a thoughtful guy and an engaged parent and citizen. But he was unknown to any of the other School Committee members.

Mary Jo Rosetti, who would become School Committee Chair in three weeks, felt a conflict between urgency to fill the vacant position and responsibility to do it with thoughtful deliberation. School Councils throughout the city were scheduled to present to the School Committee the plans that they had developed with their principals to improve their schools. She felt that Ward 1 should be ably represented in these meetings.

But Ms. Rosetti believed that the Committee had a responsibility to assess Mr. Roix’s qualifications and commitment, and they couldn’t do so within the three days remaining before their next official meeting. She felt that it was entirely appropriate for the Board of Aldermen to appoint Ms. Bastardi, since Ward 1 voters had elected her. But if the School Committee were going to take the time to assess Mr. Roix, who had not been elected, shouldn’t they consider other qualified nominees as well?

Open meeting laws prohibit the School Committee as a whole from discussing substantive or process issues outside of an official meeting. So over the weekend, Mr. Bockelman and Ms. Rosetti conferred. They drafted a selection process to present to their colleagues Monday evening.

Meanwhile, stakeholder groups had begun mobilizing to advocate for an open nomination process. Progress Together for Somerville is a community group “focused on providing the best public education for all children across the city.” Its organizers were disproportionately parents who make their living as professionals, but it has reached out to people from all income and cultural groups.

The Welcome Project conducts “programs that strengthen the capacity of immigrant youth, adults and families to advocate for themselves and influence schools, government, and other institutions.” On Sunday December 16, the Welcome Project and Progress Together jointly sent a communication to School Committee members.

They asked that the Committee “Work with community groups and local institutions…to identify candidates that will best represent the families of Ward 1.”

Throughout the weekend and Monday, School Committee members received over a dozen emails from parents echoing these requests. Compared to most School Committee issues, this was a tsunami of advocacy.

On Monday evening, the Committee met early to hash out the details of the replacement process. Its members, including Mayor Joe Curtatone and Board of Aldermen President Tom Taylor, voted unanimously to adopt the following process:

• Publicize the vacancy through all available media

• Set a January 10th deadline for interested candidates to submit statements of interest and résumés

• Review submissions and select candidates to interview

• Conduct interviews and make a selection

The East Somerville Community School Parent Teachers Association convened on January 3rd “to help identify candidates that represent the current population of East Somerville’s Ward 1, not to advocate for any particular candidate.”

Of the 504 students in Ward 1’s East Somerville Community School, 84% are from minority backgrounds, and 73% are Hispanic or Latino. English is not the first language in 74% of students’ homes. And 75% receive free or reduced-fee lunches.

After extensive discussion, the PTA proposed to the School Committee the following criteria for selecting the Ward 1 representative:

  1. Bilingual: Spanish/English
  2. Comfortable working with all of Ward 1’s cultures
  3. Willing and interested in reaching out to teachers, staff, parents and the PTA
  4. Willing to consistently stand up for the needs of Ward 1 schools
  5. Committed to education and to Somerville Schools

The Committee received applications from ten candidates. The field included four professionals who moved to Somerville as adults, four immigrants, and two from what I affectionately call “old Somerville.” Mr. Bockelman says that they were all qualified, and any one of them could be a worthy Committee Member.

This is remarkable for several reasons. East Somerville is among the least politically active wards in the city. And being a School Committee member is a demanding job that pays all of $10,500 per year, plus health insurance. It has been at least three decades since Somerville has seen this level of interest in a city office.

Ms. Rosetti says that trying to pick just one from such a highly qualified field was painful. But the process itself was powerful.

On January 15th, the Committee interviewed all of the eight candidates who were able to attend the meeting, and selected four to interview in depth:  Mr. Roix; Bonny Carrol, who grew up in the Mystic Projects and has contributed to Somerville’s wellbeing in many different roles; Ben Echevarria, who was one of the first minority kids to go through Winter Hill Community School and is now a Baptist minister; and Yvette Verdieu, a Haitian immigrant who has long been active in city commissions and community groups.

The Committee met again last Tuesday and interviewed the finalists in greater depth. On their second vote, they chose Mr. Echevarria. In his interview, he had said that he should be selected only if he were the best candidate. “If someone voted for me because of the language I speak or the color of my skin, it would be insulting.”

In the days following the selection, the School Committee received emails from former candidates who praised the process, said that they had benefitted from it, and committed to continue working to improve Somerville Schools. Among them were the three finalists who had not been selected.


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