Friday, September 11, 2009

The case for ward representation on the school board?

Last year, Rep. Steve Shurtleff, who is also a city councilor, sponsored a bill in the Legislature to change the way school board members are elected from at-large to city wards, based on the state rep. districts.
Shurtleff, who doesn't live in the Concord School District, sponsored the bill at the request of a constituent who does live in the district.
One of the reasons the bill was requested is that the school board has historically had members from just a few Wards. In the past, many have come from Ward 5 in West Concord, one of the wealthiest and most influence Wards in the city.
During the last couple of elections, the representation has shifted a bit and opponents of the change have used these elections as an example of why ward representation isn't needed.
Well, it looks like it has become lopsided again.
A quick analysis of the current school board membership reveals that nearly half the members, four of nine, come from Ward 4 [Ward 4 runs from Horseshoe Pond around the North End via Liberty Street, the south side of Franklin and the east side of Auburn, and down School Street to Storrs Street, with the exception of the block that city hall is in].
Wards 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10, each have one member each.
This means that five members - or more than half - live in the Kimball/Walker School District
There is no representation from Ward 2, 3, or 8, meaning the Beaver Meadow and Dame elementary schools have no representation on the board [No one represents Ward 1 either but most people who live in Ward 1 send their kids to the Merrimack Valley School District]. While board members will say they care about all of the schools in the city, currently there are no board members who live in those two elementary school districts.

In the past, the issue of school board autonomy, the board's ability to set its own tax rate and control its own spending with no oversight what, has bothered some residents. Some believe the school board setting the tax rate with autonomy and at-large elected members is taxation without representation. Since three wards don't have school board members, that might be a safe conclusion. Although, again, at-large school board members will say they represent the entire city, so there is representation.
I was inspired to look this up after a person emailed the following questions: "How many taxpayers live in wards that are not represented on a school board with independent taxing authority about to undertake a very costly building program? Where is the proportional representation that is a constitutional principle?"
Obviously good questions and as you can see, three wards aren't represented. Using the city's ballpark figure of 40,000-plus residents and nearly 20,000 households, about 12,000 people are not represented or about 6,000 households [although, again, at-large school board members they say they represent everyone].

I personally don't agree with the proposal that the school board should have its budgetary autonomy taken away. There was an amendment to one of the bills before the Legislature which would have allowed the city council to have final authority of the school board's budget. As I have stated before, have you seen the way the council spends money? They last thing the city needs is them rubber-stamping the school budget. The flip of this is that boards of selectmen and Town Meetings have oversight of their school budgets across the state.
While I still don't know if I agree with the idea of changing the law to have the school board members elected by ward or state rep. district [which would be three district with three wards], I do know that this school board is lopsided, with whole neighborhoods of the city [and elementary school districts, it would seem] with little representation.

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