OPINION: Public schools must be respected and protected

By Marcia Johnson

A strong commitment to our outstanding public schools has long been a shared value of the Newton community. As our schools have faced unprecedented challenges in recent years, we are reminded that we cannot take the quality of our local school system for granted. Furthermore, the mayor’s recent statement that an operating override is still needed to provide adequate school funding suggests that the budget struggles are not entirely behind us. As a nonpartisan organization devoted to protecting democracy, the League of Women Voters of Newton (LWVN) is encouraging Newtonians to consider what it means to be a community that prioritizes excellent public education.  

The recent and ongoing budgetary challenges underscore the importance of an engaged citizenry and robust elections to maintaining world-class public schools while also adhering to responsible fiscal management. Newton entrusts the governance of our schools to an elected School Committee consisting of the Mayor and eight additional members, one from each ward, who are elected citywide every two years. They represent residents as they oversee the Superintendent, school budget, and contract negotiations with three unions.  

The stakes were high in last November’s local election. Newton schools were only two years removed from the Covid-driven distance/hybrid learning years that have left many students struggling to perform at grade level and have also driven a spike in mental health concerns among the school population. A failed March 2023 school operating budget override, a newly-hired Superintendent, and 2,000 educators working under an expired contract all served to heighten turmoil in the school community.  In spite of all this, there were no contested School Committee races, even for the two open seats with no incumbent running. In total, four current School Committee representatives have never faced an opponent. 

The need for reliable information is at the core of effective governance and healthy democratic processes. Massive confusion about the budget process and the sources and amount of funding available for the schools surrounded both the 2023 override campaign and the eleven-day teachers’ strike earlier this year. The media and official city communications often presented conflicting information and inflammatory narratives rather than clarity and facts, which exacerbated anger and mistrust. As it does with national politics, social media served to fan the flames of anger, promote confusion, and create a strong disincentive for civic engagement.

Newton has had reasons to be optimistic recently about civic engagement. Last school year, a local group sought to establish an appointed Academic Standards Advisory Committee with powers over the elected School Committee. Some residents perceived the efforts to take aim at DEI and anti-racism efforts in NPS, using the messaging of a national far-right group to pit excellence against equity. Newton residents rallied at a public hearing with an overwhelming rejection of the proposal, showing that when our community’s values are threatened, Newtonians show up.

LWVN encourages Newtonians to likewise show up for the public process of public school governance.  As residents, school families, voters and taxpayers, we all own responsibility for ensuring our city prioritizes our greatest asset, our public schools, and delivers public education that enables all of our children to achieve their potential.  

In order to fulfill this responsibility, we must be informed. We must observe City Council and School Committee meetings, which is made easy by NewTV and live-streaming. We must demand transparency and clarity around policy and budget for the schools, and we must exercise our right to have input into these matters. We also share the responsibility for restoring informed, respectful civil discourse and for working together for the best outcome. We need to address the lack of interest in holding public office and running for School Committee. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need you to vote. Our city and our children need you to be engaged. Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Marcia Johnson is the spokesperson for the Board of Directors of the League of Women Voters, Newton. Newton News Foundation and Newton Beacon board member Rhanna Kidwell serves on the LWVN board. This essay has been edited from its original version to correct an inaccuracy.