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Despite Uncontested Elections, Citizens Must Remain Engaged

Newton’s election nomination papers are all in and it looks like every single seat on Newton’s School Committee will be uncontested this November. This is a perplexing situation for a community that cares deeply about education. Undoubtedly, serving on the School Committee is a difficult, time-consuming, and often thankless job, but with so many important conversations happening locally and nationally around how to best educate our kids, how is it that only eight Newton residents are willing to do this important work in our own community? But more importantly, what can we do NOW to make sure citizens remain engaged in the election even without contested races?

Elections are the bedrock of democracy. They allow citizens to get to know a variety of candidates and vote for those who they believe will best represent their values. Contested elections add important pressure on the candidates–pressure to specify where they stand on issues that matter to voters. Sadly in Newton, while several City Council elections are contested, all eight School Committee seats are not. That means the people who generously stepped up to run by the July 25 deadline are our de facto next School Committee. Of course we are grateful to our neighbors who have thrown their hats in and are willing to do this hard work. But the question remains of how, in an uncontested election, can we hold these representatives accountable to the public?

Like School Committees across the country, the Newton School Committee is a powerful body. It oversees Newton Public Schools’ (NPS) budget (including negotiating the teacher contract), hires (and fires) the NPS Superintendent, and sets goals and policies for the district. School Committees can be important vehicles for change and impact the quality of education. It behooves us as citizens to ensure that our representatives understand the complex, multifaceted issues that face our schools and, importantly, represent our values.

School Committees nationwide have recently become focal points of many hot button issues–first school reopening and masking requirements debates and now culture war issues. Newton is no exception. During the pandemic, parental division over school reopenings heightened tensions. Newton has also become the favorite target of national groups like Parents Defending Education, which has issued multiple civil rights complaints in response to NPS’ progressive approach to education. Local groups like ImproveNPS have adopted the ideology and approach of the conservative, anti-CRT, anti-trans group Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism. Last fall, in an effort to influence our Superintendent selection process, Improve NPS attempted to whitewash our districts’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statement. This spring, further attacks on NPS’ Statement of Values and Commitment to Racial Equity and on a student-run LGBTQ+ inclusion event brought these national divisions to our doorstep. See our FAQ for a deeper dive into how these groups have targeted NPS.

Thankfully these efforts were not successful, but it would be naïve to think this is the last we will hear from these groups. At the core of these attacks is a disagreement on the fundamental role of public education. Last spring, Newton residents overwhelmingly stood up in defense of NPS’ commitment to inclusive excellence, which recognizes that equity and excellence are mutually beneficial, not at odds with each other. Yet, we have seen what can happen when a small group of vocal parents oppose this vision. The School Committee is the front line of defense of NPS’ long standing core values.

Yet, with a predetermined outcome this fall, the regular door knocking, house parties, and community forums that usually accompany campaigning–and encourage candidates to clarify their views and incumbents to reaffirm their values–are unlikely to happen and voter engagement is bound to be low. Part of the unspoken compact of elections is that those who are elected will reflect the will of the voters. Without the opportunity for citizen input, representatives can theoretically reflect whatever values they choose. This is especially worrisome when we know that right-wing groups are already targeting NPS.

But effective School Committee representatives will continue to put heavy weight on the input of their constituents. The candidates running in this year’s election have expressed a desire to speak with a wide array of constituents and uphold positive learning environments for all students. Let’s make sure they know that Newton residents prioritize NPS’ diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and expect NPS to continue to work towards prioritizing belonging and opportunity for all students.

As a voter, you can influence our representatives and hold them accountable. Call or email your ward’s School Committee candidate (or any candidate; they all run at-large) and let them know what values you want them to represent. Push them on issues related to subtle and overt attacks on inclusion in our community and how they plan to hold fast against these types of attacks. Let’s make sure the next School Committee knows that we expect them to continue to prioritize and strengthen inclusive excellence across NPS.


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