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Boston Mayor Seeks Reins Of Balky City School System

MASSACHUSETTS lawmakers are considering an unusual bill to abolish Boston's 13-member school committee and give the mayor control of the city's schools. The measure, proposed by Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, would transform the elected school board into a department under the mayor's authority - similar to the city police or fire department. The panel has long been criticized as too unwieldy and politically influenced to be an effective policymaking body.

"The present structure does not work," Mayor Flynn said at a recent public hearing. It "does not provide the level of accountability to the parents and the schoolchildren of this city." The committee has also been blasted for its lagging search for a new school superintendent. Boston's last superintendent, Laval Wilson, was dismissed in February 1990.

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Flynn's legislation was approved earlier by the Boston City Council. Under the plan, the mayor would appoint a superintendent who would be responsible for the day-to-day management of the schools. The measure must pass both houses of the legislature and be signed by the governor to become law.

Flynn says the current structure lacks "accountability" because no one is really held responsible for balancing the budget or carrying out decisions. Under the present system, for example, the school committee draws up a budget and spends the money, but the mayor is responsible for raising the funds. As a result, there is little control over school-committee spending.

Unlike Boston's, most city school boards in the United States are elected and fiscally independent, say education experts. Samuel Tyler, director of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog agency, said his organization conducted a study of 25 school-board systems around the US in 1989. The study found that in other school systems with elected boards, the board itself usually has the power to raise taxes or issue bonds to raise money. But this is not the case in Boston.

"You will not find another system in the country that operates in the same way," Mr. Tyler says. "Boston really has a blurring of accountability."

Baltimore and Philadelphia have all-appointed school boards that have worked well, Tyler says. Chicago and the state of Kentucky, on the other hand, have decentralized school governance so that committee members have greater control over schools at the district level.

Boston seems to be moving in the opposite direction of the decentralization trend, says Harold Seamon, deputy executive director of the National School Boards Association. There is no other school board in the country like the one proposed by Flynn, Mr. Seamon says.

The idea is controversial. Boston's minority community, in particular, says the mayor's proposal is undemocratic. Eighty percent of Boston's students are members of minorities. "We need a school committee that is reflective of the children who attend the schools," says Jean McGuire, a school-committee member.

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Despite the lack of support for the mayor's proposal, there is general agreement that something must be done. Several proposals have been put forth, including an all-appointed seven-member school board or a combination elected and appointed board. Flynn originally won support for a seven-member, all-appointed board in a nonbinding referendum last November but backed away from the move after protests from the minority community.

Critics complain that while the school committee spends lavishly on extra staff and special programs, the system is still a failure, with a dropout rate at 40 percent. Last year, the panel spent $471 million on its 55,106 students, which amounts to $8,545 per student enrolled, says John Silber, president of Boston University.

Each school-committee member gets $52,299 a year to spend on personal staff, a large budget compared to other city school boards, Mr. Tyler says. Critics say the school board has thus deteriorated into a political patronage system. In Boston, all 13 members are elected for two-year terms every two years at the same time.

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