By Jim Coughlin
There will be a more diversified Worcester School Committee in January 2022 … On November 2, the voters of Worcester finally had their say and made some very distinct choices for city council in both the race for at large and district Worcester city councillors. However, “change” was not confined to the race for city council.
The Worcester School Committee election also resulted in perhaps more “change” on a percentage basis because, out of the seven members on the Worcester School Committee come January, three will be three new members. That’s almost half of the school committee!
These changes were a result of two retirements: long-time members of the school committee, John Monfredo and Jack Foley, chose not to seek re-election this year. These vacancies, combined with the crucial vote taken earlier this year by school committee woman Dianne Biancheria not to support the school superintendent’s proposed “sex education” curriculum, angered enough progressive parents throughout the city to scuttle Biancheria’s re-election.
The school committee election results were also due to a large coalition of African-American and Latino parents and yes, white voters, who have complained for quite some time about the all-white European American composition of the Worcester School Committee and that their voices “were not being heard.”
They were right to raise this issue that with about a 70% demographic population of the Worcester Public Schools consisting of students of color – between African American, Latino and Asian – it is simply not right and equitable to have no representation for those children amongst the membership of the governing and policy making board for the Worcester Public Schools: the Worcester School Committee.
According to the consent decree from the United States District Court, the demographic population of the Worcester Public Schools for the 2019/2020 school year is even more telling: 43.1% of students are Latino/, 29.1% are White European North American and 16.9% identify as Black or African American. A case can also be made for district representation for the school committee on the basis that 45% of Worcester residents are non-white.
So, parents exercised their rights under the constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution, along with court decision precedence and brought this question into United States Federal Court. Their collective action resulted in a consent decree which will absolutely guarantee district elections for the Worcester School Committee in 2023. I have some experience of having worked as a paralegal in the past. Many years ago, I overheard a lawyer for the City of Worcester quietly say to someone at City Hall, “The only language that some people understand is a law suit.”
It’s just too bad that it had to take a federal law suit to bring about these changes for district representation on the school committee. But the ballot box is another means of redressing one’s individual and collective grievances. The voters of Worcester made good sense in trying to address this more than obvious wrong by choosing Jermaine Johnson, LICSW, a Social Worker and a first time African American candidate for school committee who not only was elected by wide margin, but he finished in first place.
In a telephone interview with this reporter election night, after what Johnson said was “a historic win,” (and with great emotion in his voice) he said, “I am absolutely ecstatic.” And in another interview with him on the Sunday following election, he said that his phone has been ringing continuously since election night from people extending their congratulations to him upon his election to the Worcester School Committee. “I am humbled by my election,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s first place finish was a first for Worcester because Worcester has never had an African American man on the school committee before, only African American women. The tide of African American women serving on our school committee began with the late Mrs. Elizabeth L. “Betty” Price being the first woman of color to win a seat on the Worcester School Committee in 1973, and winning re-election in 1975. Since 1975, there have been three other women of color who have been elected to the Worcester School Committee: Shirley Wright, who for years worked side by side with her pastor husband leading the iconic Emanuel Baptist Church of Main South; Professor Greta O’Neil, Ph.d, a former psychology professor at the College of the Holy Cross; and Hilda Ramirez, a Latina woman who heads The Latino Institute at Worcester State University.
Also elected to the Worcester School Committee on November 2 was Jemoh Kamara, an African American woman candidate, originally from Liberia, Africa, who immigrated to Worcester with her family when she was 11 years old. She attended the Worcester Public Schools and holds a Masters Degree and currently works as a public health professional. Kamara said she has in the past worked as a professor as WPI teaching “Project-based Social Science Research.”
Kamara came in 5th place in the race for school committee garnering, 7,994 votes, or 1,090 votes ahead of incumbent school committee member Molly McCullough who finished in 6th place.
Kamara also holds the title of being the first candidate for the school committee to have immigrated from a foreign country (the previously war-torn country of Liberia), attend the Worcester Public Schools and be elected to the Worcester School Committee. She went to Canterbury Street Elementary School, Sullivan Middle School and graduated from South High in 2011.
All of Worcester should be enormously proud of both of these successful school committee candidates for their electoral accomplishments. Johnson, like Professor Kamara, is amply qualified to serve on the Worcester School Committee. He is a Social Worker, and God only knows social workers hear everything in the line of people’s personal problems. I absolutely guarantee everyone, nothing will surprise a social worker, they’ve seen so much …
When the school committee gets to discussing children and students at their meetings, Johnson can readily apply his professional education and experience as a social worker in helping him and his colleagues make official public policy for all of our school system’s more than 25,000 students in a fair and equitable way.
Johnson is also a graduate of Worcester’s South High Community School.
The third newly elected member of the Worcester School Committee is Susan Coghlin-Mailman who is white and finished in second place right behind Jermaine Johnson, receiving 8,872 votes. Mailman has a background of volunteering for years in Worcester in a variety of genres, including being the chair of the Quinsigamond Community College Board of Trustees and as the past board president of the YWCA of Central Massachusetts. She is also a strong backer of the “backbone of our country” – organized labor and the men and women of the AFL-CIO.
So, all in all, I believe the students and the parents of children attending the Worcester Public Schools will be well served for the next two years by the three new members of the Worcester School Committee.