Thursday, July 18, 2024

The School Committee held a two-day retreat last month to set priorities and make sure its members could work well together, but its first public meeting since the summer shows it came back worse than it went in.

Opinion boxThe six-member elected body – led by a seventh member, the mayor – decided in June that it would also use that Aug. 16-17 retreat to talk about three big issues and five specific motions: the achievement gap; hiring and retaining more teachers of color; sexual assault and harassment; encouraging committee members to visit each school every year; reviewing class size policies; summarizing costs and benefits of community partner organizations; how to review the work of newly hired Superintendent Kenneth Salim; and exploring the feasibility of providing child care at committee meetings.

There was little debate, because Mayor E. Denise Simmons said there was little time, but vice chairman Fred Fantini said his motivation for looking to the retreat was because these issues “were worthy of a deeper discussion.”

Yet there was no discussion on any of the issues or motions at the retreat, which cost thousands of taxpayer dollars. And the discussion last week was only to transfer each to an Ad Hoc Transition Subcommittee for further “prioritization.”

In part this results from Salim’s post-hiring introduction of an “entry plan” in which he spends his first six months in office observing how the district operates. Fantini confirmed Tuesday that the committee wasn’t aware of Salim’s plan when it hired him, though he felt Salim’s six-month approach (out of a four-year term) “seems standard.” He gave reassurances that sending everything to the ad-hoc committee was “not like we are going to wait for six months,” but it’s hard to understand why such things as the child care motion, which has nothing to do with the superintendent, has been dumped into the same basket. Some committee members made the same objection.


The committee followed this up with a debate over honorifics in meetings and their minutes – “Mr.” and “Ms.,” for instance – as the mayor proposed to “convene a preliminary discussion” on the matter yet to bizarrely delay any implementation of solutions by two years. Committee members’ confusion was borne out when member Emily Dexter acknowledged she was the origin of the issue, because she thinks the traditional honorifics are outmoded, but also didn’t feel it needed to be discussed on a motion. “It’s really just a housekeeping issue,” Dexter said.

It’s also an issue as worthy of being raised by a committee member as it is by any of the people now explaining via social media how they prefer to be addressed; in 2016, the mayor or committee members wouldn’t dare make fun of the many people opting to be addressed as “they,” for instance, and could have resolved the question in a simple five-minute conversation. (One solution: Let members be called whatever they want, and let minutes refer to members by last name, without an honorific.)

The mayor’s motion came off as a passive-aggressive slam against Dexter in a meeting that was nasty overall and painted the committee as a borderline dysfunctional group, retreat or no.

Dress code

In an already disappointing meeting, the committee also failed to resolve the student dress code, which has been discussed for a year, including by students who find the code sexist.

The committee had been heading toward a vote with language approved by a coalition of students, faculty and parents that among other things, eliminated a rule against “bare midriffs, short shorts [and] low-slung trousers.” But the tone of agreement was lost when member Manikka Bowman introduced a sentence specifically undoing all that by demanding that “all students must be covered from mid-thigh to the top of chest in non-see-through material.”

Students were rightfully shocked, saying Bowman’s order was “not feasible, not in line with the rest of the statement and targets female students,” which Bowman objected to, saying her rule was aimed at both girls and boys, with special focus on “boys with saggy pants.”

The problem here – aside from the fact that Bowman’s rule doesn’t do what she says, because saggy pants just reveal “non-see-through” underwear – is that this has nothing to do with education. Bowman has little education background; she’s a sociologist, student of urban policy and divinity master who’s an ordained clergywoman who “sees power in the intersection of moral voice with public life,” in language cribbed from her own campaign materials, and her stance on this isn’t just in opposition to constituents and colleagues with a greater stake in the issue, but against the judgment of Damon Smith, the high school principal, who will be responsible for the campus where this dress code will get its most thorough workout.

Bowman was popularly elected and deserves her voice on the committee, but she shouldn’t be making a moral decision for a school full of people with minds and parents of their own – especially when it contributes to what looks like an increasingly dismal record of delay for a School Committee with many more serious issues to deal with.

This was post was updated Sept. 15, 2016, to correct that superintendent Kenneth Salim has a four-year term. It was changed Oct. 7, 2016, to specify her studies in urban policy rather than urban planning and reflect that Bowman sent a résumé showing her experience in education: From 2007-08, she “designed educational curriculum for first- to third-graders for a summer enrichment program,” and in 2011-12, at the Boston Opportunity Agenda, she was “building an in-depth knowledge in education reform spanning early childhood to career readiness.”