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School Take-Over or Partnership

Immigrant community is riled as Boston's big University rides in to rescue bankrupt city's schools

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IT was a great day for Chelsea.

A mound of dirt stretched out in front of a platform groaning with dignitaries, each waiting to heft a symbolic shovel or to be photographed with a commemorative plaque marking groundbreaking for seven new school buildings, the first schools to be built in the city since 1909.

Although state funds had been available since World War II to help communities build schools, Chelsea's Board of Aldermen had never asked for them. Chelsea was the only one of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns that had not.

It should have been a great day for Boston University President John Silber, the keynote speaker at the June 26 groundbreaking ceremony. His university accepted a call to manage the failing school system five years ago. Since then, it had raised $4.6 million to support Chelsea schools, increased teachers' salaries 29 percent, reduced the high school dropout rate 60 percent, ensured that 80 percent of the city's three- and four-year-olds had access to early childhood education, and now celebrated the end of a 40-year struggle in the city to build new schools.

And yet, the BU president spent the heart of his speech answering the criticism that won't go away: that Boston University can't talk to Hispanics.

The dispute between BU and the independent Commission on Hispanic Affairs plays out in news reports as a disconnect between BU and the Hispanic community of Chelsea, as a clash of personalities, political styles, or ideologies.

There is a partial truth in each of these explanations. But the roots of this conflict run deeper and touch what it means to bring voices that have been silent into the political life of a community.

Hours after BU signed its contract to manage city schools in 1989, the commission sued to challenge the constitutionality of the agreement. It also appealed to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) to establish an oversight panel to monitor the openness of decisionmaking and public access in the BU/Chelsea partnership. A request to the state Board of Education for mediation is pending.

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