Josh Amaral will not run for a third four-year term on the School Committee.
He made the announcement in an interview with The New Bedford Light this week.
The 28-year-old has been one of the twin forces of gravity on the committee the last eight years. The other being the committee’s “chairman ex-officio,” Mayor Jon Mitchell.
But whereas Amaral’s starting point was always the perspectives of the teachers’ union, the mayor’s starting point has been the reputation of the system, both inside and outside the city.
They seem to have met in the middle and somehow moved the long-struggling school department forward, though perhaps not nearly as much as either would have you believe.
“We’ve made tremendous progress with the graduation rate at New Bedford High School,” Amaral told me in the interview announcing his departure. He said he believes the system has finally turned the corner. “A lot of indicators across the district that were formerly areas of weakness are now strengths,” he continued, predicting that New Bedford public schools will soon come off the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s “nonperforming” list.
At a May press conference, Mitchell and school leaders touted impressive increases in the system’s graduation rate over the last four years. According to the city district’s numbers, the four-year graduation rate grew from 55.8% in 2010 to 88.1% in 2020.
The district’s performance on the state’s MCAS achievement measuring tests, however, have been more mixed, with some schools doing well and others making only marginal improvements or even stalling.
To be fair, some of the system’s progress began before Amaral’s tenure, when under the influence of Mitchell and former progressive committee members like Marlene Pollock and Dr. John Fletcher, the School Committee brought in Superintendent Pia Durkin. Durkin, despite criticism for heavy-handedness, instituted standards and a no-excuses culture for teachers, perhaps for the first time in several generations. After Amaral and other new members arrived on the committee, Durkin’s contract was not renewed.
Amaral has been on the School Committee since he was little over a year out of UMass Dartmouth, where he was a political science major. He made news for attending School Committee meetings the year before he was elected, often sitting in the audience with then-teachers’ union president Lou St. John.
At the time, the union was involved in a bitter struggle with former Superintendent Durkin over her plan to ask for the resignations of 50% of the teachers. It was an effort to build accountability into a system long plagued by patronage hires, low MCAS scores and a high dropout rate.
Amaral won the seat with union support, but once in office he moved toward the middle, positioning himself as a moderate voice for reform by way of winning the union’s buy-in. He also made a name for himself identifying state funding sources that seemed unfair to cities like New Bedford in comparison with wealthier suburbs.
“He had good things to say at different points,” said Pollock, who praised Amaral’s head for figures and identifying areas where the system may have been short-changed in state funding. Pollock was one of the members of the committee strongly advocating for reform a decade ago, including an innovation school that was allowed to function outside the bounds of collective-bargaining agreements. Amaral and others opposed that initiative and a second innovation school never came about.
Mitchell was more effusive in praising Amaral in a prepared statement released by his spokesman. The mayor drew attention to his colleague’s understanding of education policy and financial management.
“Josh has been unwavering in backstopping school reform the last few years, which has led most notably to a dramatic increase in the city’s four-year graduation rate,” he wrote.
Amaral was also a reliable critic of the city’s charter schools, arguing that they were siphoning off money from the public district even though the city’s charters have questioned his numbers and pointed out that they are part of the public districts in Massachusetts.
Amaral says he’s leaving because his life is changing. He’s about to get married and is now the assistant executive director of PACE (People Acting in Community Endeavors). It is one of the region’s largest private nonprofits and describes its mission as improving the economic and social quality of life of local low-income residents. In the wake of the COVID pandemic, PACE has begun a seven-day-a-week food bank and is also moving to try to help address the region’s affordable housing crisis.
“I’m really excited about a lot of the work I’m doing professionally in the community and want to give back in other ways, focusing on some really important issues in our community, like the housing challenges we have, food insecurity and involving myself in other (things),” Amaral said.
His departure from this year’s election campaign, however, leaves an open seat on the School Committee.
Members of the six-member committee serve four-year terms and three run in every two-year election cycle. The mayor of New Bedford, by virtue of his office, serves as the seventh member of the committee.
Incumbents John Oliveira and Colleen Dawicki are running for re-election, and given the overwhelming track record in the city for incumbents winning re-election, they will probably be favored. Oliveira, however, has been controversial, for sometimes using foul language with fellow committee members during public meetings, and pointedly criticizing them over what he has described as behind-the-scenes maneuvers.
Ross Grace, a challenger who is a former assistant principal at Carney Academy, is running. Grace made a good but losing showing two years ago. Amaral said Melissa Costa, a social worker who ran for Ward 1 councilor the last two cycles, is announcing her candidacy and he will back her.
In addition, Amaral has as much as endorsed his colleague Colleen Dawicki and challenger Grace but he was conspicuous in not mentioning Oliveira. He said he has full confidence in Superintendent Thomas Anderson and his team.
“I had an open seat to run for when I was elected and I think other candidates should be afforded the same opportunity,” he said, saying it is time for new voices on the committee.
For himself, though he is departing the School Committee, Amaral voiced the politician’s mantra that he would never rule out a future run for office. The mayor’s office in the long-range future is the one he has in mind, although he said he might not rule out the School Committee again if he becomes a parent.
“I don’t know that City Council or the Legislature is a great fit for me,” he said. “Seeing my experience in management, so far I’ve appreciated when I can have a more direct effect on things. In the city that only means really one executive job.”
Contact Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org
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