Guest columnist Michael Stein: Election reflection — Improve local democracy

Northampton High School

Northampton High School GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

By MICHAEL STEIN

Published: 12-25-2023 5:54 PM

As a political theorist I think about democracy more than most, and this fall, as an incumbent running for re-election to the Northampton School Committee, I had an intimate view of our local political culture. What I observed was a vague yet vocal insistence on efficiency, collaboration, positivity, civility, and collegiality in whispers, in print, and on the air from a small, but influential group of politically engaged residents in support of a slate of school committee candidates, including my opponent, in the race.

To quote from a few endorsements published in this paper; the School Committee was described as “plagued by a lack of collaboration” that could be remedied by “thoughtful collaboration” if certain candidates were elected. Another author was “fed up with politics and dysfunction” and wanted “voices of reason.” More idiosyncratically, another suggested that we need candidates that would “conduct their polity effectively and collaboratively, not as performance art.”

What strikes me as odd about these types of endorsements, the characteristics they trumpet and the vague critiques of the School Committee they offer, is the complete lack of specificity. At best it amounts to an endorsement of preferred candidates’ characters, entirely unmoored from either their voting record, the issues they champion, their experience, or the positions they’ve taken. Inversely, it denigrates the character of the endorsed candidates’ opponents, without evidence, and suggests that the non-endorsed candidate must be a contributor to dysfunction, non-collaborative, or lacking in collegiality. All of this begs many questions. What issues do the authors want the committee to collaborate on? Do they understand the role or issues facing the body? What dysfunction are they referring to? What do they mean by collaboration, positivity, or civility? How did I miss performance art at one of our meetings?

In small local races, social networks and endorsements help voters decide who to vote for and testaments about character easily substitute for understanding the complex web of issues, challenges and responsibilities candidates face if elected. With little news coverage these networks play an outsized role in our local races. In Northampton the local democratic party wields influence in races that are non-partisan. It is completely rational for voters to look to endorsements to help guide their voting and understanding of local issues. However, they also tend to reproduce the views and positions of a particular group, class, or clique favored by the local establishment and backed by donor circles. This infrastructure is a significant advantage in running for office and many challengers have a steep hill to climb to be competitive.

Our City Council and School Committee are democratically elected bodies whose duties and responsibilities are defined by state and local statutes, charters, and policies. Members are elected representatives who must conduct their deliberation in accordance with open meeting law. This requirement severely hampers “collaboration” between a majority of the body outside of these meetings, and because all of our meetings must occur publicly, they often run very long. Robust deliberation by prepared members results in the best policy outcomes for the city, and we should be encouraging elected representatives to make their voices heard and to lift up the voices of their constituents. We should expect, even welcome, disagreement as we wrestle with some of the most challenging issues of the moment such as budget cuts, labor contracts, curriculum changes, climate change, etc. It is through a deliberative process that we arrive at decisions that impact our students, caregivers, and employees. This is both the hard work and promise of democracy.

I am suspicious that the “collaboration” critics are pining for isn’t actually collaboration at all, but rather, compliance and complicity with whatever direction an administrator or the mayor is advocating. In my experience, to ask thoughtful questions and request information is not seen as being deferential enough. Proposed alternatives are sometimes portrayed as disrespectful to the bureaucracy and we have a “stay in your lane” caucus that doesn’t seem to understand the lanes clearly laid out in the legal structures governing our body or to apply their view of “lanes” consistently. Having spent the past two years on a committee which inherited a mountain of personnel, policy, open meeting law violations and financial challenges from successive school committees and leaders, I would caution against emphasizing positivity and civility over accountability, oversight and prudent fiscal stewardship. We are still emerging from a period where our schools operated with a fortress mentality and we owe it to our students not to slide back into those silos which prevent meaningful collaboration between all stakeholders. Re-establishing a curriculum committee, a body most other school committees have, was an important step forward in overcoming those barriers and under our new permanent superintendent I am confident open lines of communication will grow.

For 200 years school governing boards in Massachusetts have engaged in democratic deliberation and decision making to benefit the education of our commonwealth. I hope we can all embrace the hard work and promise of democracy and reject vague calls for civility and appeals to character which are so often used to quiet dissent and marginalized voices. As the Ward 4 School Committee member, I will continue to do my part and I am grateful my constituents elected me to serve another term. I invite all residents in Northampton to tune into School Committee meetings, it is after all your representatives in action and your tax dollars at work. Ignore the whispers and judge for yourself.

Michael Stein represents Ward 4 on the Northampton School Committee.

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