Friday, July 12, 2024

Cambridge could elect directly seven School Committee members, who would then choose a leader from among their number — but that’s not how it works now. (Photo: Betsy Devine)

It’s starting, again — campaign time in Cambridge. With an election in November, you’ll see candidates for School Committee and City Council all over town. But there’s one committee member you will not be able to pick: the mayor, who serves as its chair ex officio.

That’s wrong. Let me be clear.  I know the current mayor, David Maher, and I like him. Nothing about this issue is about him — and, judging from history and tradition, he is fairly unlikely to be the next mayor of Cambridge anyway, since the post usually rotates from term to term. But no matter who our mayor is, he or she should not sit on the School Committee.

When council candidates campaign, they talk about zoning, housing, crime, parks, transportation, taxes, schools and more. The School Committee candidates talk about education.

In September and October, council candidates don’t focus on the schools in their campaigns.  They don’t present detailed plans or platforms about education to the voters as committee candidates do. In November, at the polls, few voters, if any, have the possibility of a councillor winning, becoming mayor and serving on the School Committee when they decide who to support for council.

The mayor gets extra staff, extra salary and the authority to lead the council’s meetings and determine its agenda. So when January comes, councillors will not choose a mayor based solely or even largely on the issue of which of them would make the best addition to and leader of the School Committee. It is just one factor among many.

We can do better. The simplest method is to have Cambridge elect directly all seven committee members, who would then choose a leader from among their number in the same way the council chooses the mayor today. There would still be a mayor, with the same powers except membership in the School Committee.

Incentives matter.

Avi Green lives on Banks Street.  He serves as co-director of MassVOTE.