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Boston Seems Ready to Try An Appointed School Board

State legislators back plan to replace deficit-ridden body

BOSTON is close to revamping its controversial School Committee, the body that many have blamed for the wretched condition of the city's schools. Both houses of the legislature have given preliminary approval to a home-rule petition that would abolish the elected, 13-member committee and replace it with a seven-member board appointed by the mayor. Supporters say that while there will be one more vote in the Senate and additional votes in the House, Tuesday's 103-to-49 House vote virtually ensures final passage. Gov. William Weld is expected to sign the bill.

The proposal has met with protests from black residents and legislators, who say it threatens the position of blacks, who have long felt locked out of policymaking in a city dominated by Irish politicians. In 1976, the first black in 75 years was elected to the School Committee.

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State Sen. Bill Owens (D) of Mattapan, who is black, says the problem is disenfranchisement: ``For as long as I can remember, [the School Committee] has been a sham. At least today you have district representation.''

Boston's business community lobbied strongly in favor of the bill. And after a group of black ministers lobbied for it, some white lawmakers who had been undecided voted for it.

The appointed board would be chosen by Mayor Raymond Flynn from a list of 21 names selected by a nominating panel composed of parents, educators, business leaders, and representatives for bilingual and special-needs students. The mayor has said that the board would reflect the makeup of the school district, which is 80 percent black, Asian, and Hispanic.

A part of the bill provides that, if voters are dissatisfied with the new structure after four years, they can vote in a binding referendum to return to the current structure.

The legislature has been debating over School Committee structure for 45 years, says Rep. Mark Roosevelt (D) of Boston, House sponsor of the legislation. The current districtwide board was seen as an improvement over the previous five-member committee whose members were elected citywide. That board was blamed for bringing a court-ordered desegregation suit upon the city by approving policies that appeased an anti-busing constituency.

The School Committee has often been labeled racist, too political, and inefficient - more interested in making personnel decisions than setting educational policies. Under the current structure, the city raises the money to run the schools, but the School Committee has no accountability to City Hall.

``Eleven out of the last 13 school budget years ended with a deficit,'' says Sam Tyler, executive director of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-financed watchdog agency.

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Supporters of the bill say the committee traditionally has been viewed as an entry into politics. An appointed board, they say, would attract those more interested in educational reform.

That reform, they say, is desperately needed. The Boston School Department has a $25 million budget shortfall. It spends $7,600 per student annually, about a third of that on special education. Schools are crumbling and dirty, supplies are low, and dropout rates are high. The Massachusetts Department of Education has threatened to take over the vocational education program for not meeting state standards.

The committee has been known for not being able to hold onto its superintendents; there have been nine since 1972. The last one, Laval Wilson, was fired in January 1990, and given a $200,000 settlement.

In May, after a 15-month controversy-ridden search, the School Committee picked Lois Harrison-Jones, from the Dallas, Texas, school district, to become the next superintendent.

Racial politics have figured strongly in the school system. The United States Supreme Court ordered it desegregated in 1974. The busing that followed led to widespread protests and violence. Whites fled to the suburbs. The district stayed under the court desegregation order for 10 years until last year, when it was lifted. But last month US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. reopened the case, ruling that Boston's schools failed to meet goals for hiring minority teachers.

Proponents of the current bill take seriously the charge of disenfranchisement but say the situation is so dire that the change is necessary.

``None of us want to give up the right to vote, even though only 17 percent of the populace actually vote,'' says state Mr. Roosevelt. ``It's ideal to have an elected board. But when kids are being failed as badly as they're being failed, we have to do what's best for kids. Enough is enough.''

Sen. Thomas Birmingham (D) of Chelsea, Senate sponsor of the bill, says: ``What concerns me most is the lifelong disenfranchisement kids are subjected to when condemned to substandard education.''

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