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Boston Moves to Centralize Schools

Bucking trend toward local control, city would make mayor responsible for public schools. EDUCATION REFORM

THE city of Boston wants the Massachusetts legislature to approve a proposal to eliminate the School Committee and turn the management of city schools over to the mayor. If the General Court goes along, it would be the first time a big-city mayor has assumed direct responsibility for schools, city officials say.

``I think it's really very, very important to have a person who will answer for the schools,'' says Ellen Guiney, education adviser to Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn. ``I think that person has to be the mayor and his designee, his superintendent. It's a model that has a lot of merit and deserves to be tried.''

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Under the plan, which the City Council approved Dec. 5, the 13-member Boston School Committee, an elective body, would be abolished. The mayor would appoint a powerful superintendent who would draw up budget proposals and administer the schools. The council, as is currently the case, would have final approval over the whole budget, but not a line-item veto.

The plan runs counter to national trends toward turning school management over to local school boards, as has been done in New York and Chicago. The Chicago program is facing a legal challenge but decentralization there is expected to continue.

It is not the first time the city has moved to assume more control. Last year, Boston voters, in a referendum, narrowly approved replacing the School Committee with a seven-member board. But Mayor Flynn backed off the plan in the face of opposition in white South Boston and among blacks and Hispanics.

Search brngs frustration

Frustration with the School Committee has reached a climax over its attempts to select a new school superintendent to replace Laval Wilson, who was fired last February. The citizens' search committee tasked with finding and screening candidates recently proposed five finalists. One withdrew in distaste over school politics. Another who was thought to be black turned out to be white. A third was found to have been fired from his last job.

Meanwhile, critics scored the search committee over the lack of women or Hispanic candidates. The School Committee will vote next week on whether to continue the search.

The City Council's plan to take control of the schools has angered School Committee members and some minorities.

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``I totally support some form of elected school committee,'' says Peggy Davis-Mullen, a committee member. ``As a mother, whether it's the issue of condoms being distributed in the system, whether we should have AIDS education in schools, or whether to have vocational education, I want to be involved because it's my child,'' Ms. Davis-Mullen says. ``Parents have a right to have a say in that.''

``I think it's crazy,'' says Louis Elisa, president of the Boston chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. ``The mayor has big problems with the Boston Housing Authority, the police, fair housing, and public facilities. Almost every agency under his supervision is failing to do its job. Now he wants to take on something else which he has shown very little interest in or ability to understand.''

Mrs. Guiney charges that the School Committee does no planning, is not accountable, and is not addressing education issues. ``At the end of the day, one-third of the kids are still leaving school,'' she says. Last spring the committee had to postpone for a year implementation of a mandatory eighth-grade reading test for high school seniors when it became clear 40 percent of them would fail.

``They have run a deficit for the last five years now without the results one would expect,'' Guiney says. ``Boston is one of highest-spending districts in the United States. The ratio of 12.6 students to teacher, is a very low ratio. It's not a question of resources, but of how they are used.''

Max McConkey, director of The Network Inc., an education consulting firm, is also critical of the committee's performance. ``Under normal circumstances the abolition of a democratic process is abhorrent,'' he says. But ``perhaps the line has been crossed. The situation is too desperate, and remedies are not forthcoming under the existing situation. It's time for drastic action.''

Temporary plan suggested

Mr. McConkey suggests the legislature implement a reform plan for a temporary period, such as five years, and then either review the progress or submit the matter to a referendum. He points to California and New Jersey, where the state has stepped in to declare school districts in receivership, and Kentucky, which is dismantling the entire education system to start over.

``If the mayor and council don't make changes, the state education department will find itself forced to ... take over the entire system or particular schools. The implications of that far more problematic,'' he says.

It is not clear how the legislature or Gov.-elect William Weld (R) will view the city's proposal. His spokesman, Ray Howell, is cautious: Mr. Weld believes that ``the Boston schools are in obvious need of drastic changes,'' he says. ``[He] wants to take a look at the legislation and have the opportunity to talk to the various people who would be affected.''

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