For most elected officials, getting sworn in is the icing on the cake that comes after a successful vote of the people.
However, for the Chelsea School Committee, those who are elected seem to have a hard time showing up for that icing- or even running for the cake in the first place.
Elected last fall on a somewhat active sticker campaign, Yolanda Gonzales this week declined to take her seat on the Committee and was not sworn into office. It has become somewhat common these days on the Committee and is yet another vacancy on a Board that has a good deal of power in running the City’s schools.
And while just about every family in Chelsea has a stake in the local schools, just about everyone seems to be disinterested in taking a role in governing those schools.
With yet another vacancy on the Board due to Gonzales’s decision not to serve, City leaders led by City Manager Jay Ash are interested in looking into transitioning to an appointed School Committee.
“There are a number of City officials and local residents who are calling into question the way the School Board gets seated,” said Ash. “I would be happy to participate in a discussion with our local leaders to see if there is a better way to have good people serving on the Board and people who are regularly available to do so…This situation does give voters reason to shrug and say, ‘How valuable is it to go to the polls when people don’t run or if they run and win, they don’t serve.’ The situation creates a jaundiced view for those who come out and vote in these elections.”
Chelsea has always had an elected School Committee and so does just about every community around Chelsea, with the exception of Boston. In Boston, the School Committee is appointed by the mayor.
For years, the Chelsea Committee served on a citywide basis, and had a good deal of interest from local candidates.
However, about 10 years ago, the federal Department of Justice brought in sweeping reforms of the Committee due to alleged violations of the Voting Rights Act.
Those reforms called for the Committee to be made up of eight district seats and one at-large seat.
While the design was to create more equity on the Board, it has ended up causing more empty seats on the Board. Many of the districts created by the reform often have no candidates and end up being an empty seat at the table or a seat won by a write-in candidate.
Frequently, there are also last minute sticker campaigns such as was mounted by Gonzales.
One piece of evidence as to the extreme nature of the situation came a few years ago when local activist Jim Dwyer won a seat on the School Committee – quite to his surprise – with only one vote, a vote that he wrote in for himself. It was a joke that turned into reality, and though Dwyer took his seat and served successfully, it was a situation that City leaders said is not healthy.
“Every since that came down, the Board has had to deal with seats being vacant and no one running for seats from several of the districts,” said Ash. “The people who are running are write-ins and in the past we have had one candidate win a seat with his own write-in vote.
“I believe the people running on stickers are legitimate candidates,” Ash said. “However, running by sticker and having routine vacancies should be the exception and not the norm. It does mean we should call into question how the Board is placed into seats.”
Ash said that the Department of Justice reforms do not apply if the Committee transitions to to an appointed body. The reforms are only required if the Committee is voted upon by the public because the reforms came under the Voting Rights Act.
For now, Gonzales’s seat will remain vacant, as will a handful of others where there were no candidates in last fall’s election.
Any change to the way the Committee is seated would require a vote of the City Council under the Home Rule Petition process. If that petition would pass the Council, it would be forwarded to the State Legislature. The State Legislature must pass the petition and the governor must sign it before any change could become official.
New Chair of the School Committee
While some in the City choose not to serve on the School Committee when elected, one local member has stepped up this week to become the new Chair of the Committee.
At an unofficial swearing in ceremony on Tuesday evening, Lucia Colon stepped in as the new chair of the Committee.
“I’m very excited about Lucia accepting this role of greater leadership in our community,” said City Manager Jay Ash. “She has proven to be a tremendous advocate for our kids and a valued community advocate as well. We’re lucky to have people like her serving on our school board.”
The City Council and School Committee will be formally sworn into office at a grand ceremony on Monday, Jan. 9th at City Hall.