Perez found support yesterday for his move from another strong mayor, John DeStefano of New Haven, in the form of a letter to the editors at the Courant:
I'm writing in response to Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez appointing himself to the board of education and subsequently being elected chairman [editorial, Dec. 7, "Mr. Mayor, Or Is It Chairman?"]. Although The Courant argues that Mayor Perez is stretching himself too thin, I applaud Mayor Perez for his bold leadership.
Mayor Perez understands that a city cannot succeed without great public schools, the type that attract and retain children from all backgrounds and prepare them to compete in today's global economy. What's more, Mayor Perez is not afraid to take accountability for accomplishing this.
As mayor of New Haven, I not only appoint the board of education, I am also a voting member. This benefits our children in three substantial ways. First, the board is made up of professional educators and parents instead of politicians. Second, the mayor's office and the board of education are better able to work as a team. And perhaps most important, voters know exactly who to hold responsible for what happens in their public schools.
DeStefano then goes on to tout the results of this arrangement: lower dropout rates, new school construction and a higher percentage of students reading at grade level.
In essence, both Perez and DeStefano seem to believe that a strong hand is required to turn around dangerously awful school systems like Hartford's, and that a board that is entirely elected by the voters and separate from the mayor's office can't do it. They may, in fact, be right. School board members are sometimes notorious for trying to advance their own political agendas and careers instead of focusing on the schools, and the relationship between school board and town council or mayor's office is usually contentious at best. It also always struck me as madness that the school board in the town where I was a teacher was made up mainly of people who had never worked in a school before.
Yet this arrangement allows voters and parents to believe that they have control over their schools, and so it persists. Perhaps it ought not to. Parents and well-meaning civilians are the last people who should meddle with something as complicated and fragile as a school system.
In reality, the average parent or citizen has very little control over the schools anyway, no matter who they elect to the board. Most don't know which board members are doing what on the board, so it's hard to hold anyone responsible for his or her actions. Therefore, the only issue here is whether school service would be adversely impacted by removing an elected board and replacing it with one that is either entirely or partially appointed.
DeStefano is making the case that his system has helped his city's schools improve. Hartford voters approved charter changes that move their city towards this system, in the hopes of that their schools, too, will improve.
I say it's more than worth a try.