Two districts for the School Committee failed to field any candidates once again this time around – in District 3 and District 4 – for a Board that has struggled with commitment and filling seats to make critical decisions.
Currently, there is no District 4 Committee person, and no candidate stepped up this time to run for the seat. In District 3, the current seat-holder, Marisol Santiago, chose to run for City Council and no other candidate stepped up.
Ever since a federal lawsuit ordered Chelsea to change its School Committee seating structure in the early 2000s, with eight districts and one at-large member, the Committee has often failed to find a candidates. It is rather common that someone is appointed to the seats after the inauguration in January, and there is the famous story of Jim Dwyer winning a seat several years ago with one vote – his own write-in vote.
Under Chair Kelly Garcia and former Chair Jeannette Velez, many sections of the Committee have become more active and committed. Over the past year, the School Committee was one of the most important decision-making bodies in the City as it related to pandemic relief and school configurations. In the coming term, important decisions over pandemic restrictions, as well as how to spend millions of dollars in federal funds coming to the schools, will be on the line.
The fact that few have stepped up to fill decision-making seats has some thinking it’s time to re-evaluate the Committee.
“I think we need to evaluate and take a look at the School Committee,” said Councilor Leo Robinson. “We can’t seem to get candidates and that’s affecting the school’s being able to move forward. I’ve talked to the superintendent about the position this puts them in and that we need to evaluate. It’s not fair to the candidates that go out and campaign with an honest effort. I think it’s time to look at some (other format).”
Council President Roy Avellaneda said he has proposed in the past a hybrid form of Committee, with some elected and some appointed, and he said he would probably suggest that again.
“I go back to thinking that maybe the hybrid was the best approach,” he said. “I offered it years ago in the early 2000s…You have some professionals and appointed professionals and you maintain the electoral piece by having four voted seats. That way you could better ensure you’ll have candidates. That would be the best scenario.”
Avellaneda also said he believes another piece of the problem is that there is no mayor. Without the highest seat to aspire to – as there is now a City Manager – he said he believes it’s hard to recruit candidates. He pointed to Everett, which has a very lively School Committee race this coming Election Season with five contested seats and two Preliminary races and no vacant seats. With a mayoral form of government, he said he believes that’s the difference.
However, he also said to be careful what one wishes for as a mayoral form of government is known to be a rancorous form of government as well.
“Be careful what you wish for because many times you look at them and the vitriol on display at meetings and all the sudden that doesn’t seem so great either,” he said.
Chair Kelly Garcia, who has led a very active campaign each year, said it’s up to the existing School Committee officials and City Councillors, who are all very diverse, to encourage young people to be civic minded. If they don’t see people like them in office, they may not think that they can run.
“We need to be in the schools and speaking with our youth and incorporating civic engagement in our schools so that youth know they can run for office,” she said. “When I was that age, I thought politics was only for old, white men. I want to break that stigma in Chelsea. We’re diverse and a picture of what politics can be. That can take time. It’s a lot of education and educating our youth and making sure we are visible.”
City Manager Tom Ambrosino, who doesn’t have any control or sway over the schools by City Charter, said it’s probably an issue that needs to be looked at by the Charter Commission.
“I don’t have a strong opinion here, although my preference is that any change should be decided ultimately by the City’s residents in some election,” he said. “I know the City Council is currently considering proposed changes to the City Charter. I don’t know if they are considering any change to how School Committee members are selected. But, that would seem to me to be the appropriate group – the Charter Review Committee – that should be considering this question in the first instance.”