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Suit by Chelsea Teachers Seeks To Thwart District Agreement With Boston University

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In a last-ditch effort to block a proposed agreement that would allow Boston University to assume management of the Chelsea (Mass.) Public Schools, the Chelsea Teachers Union and the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers have jointly filed suit to kill the plan.

The unprecedented management agreement suffered a further setback last week when the state board of education voted that it was "unacceptable in its present form." The plan is expected to be considered by the Chelsea school committee this week.

The unions "reluctantly" went to court to stop that vote, according to Donald W. Menzies, president of the ctu, when the university declined to yield to teacher objections after a series of meetings last week.

"We gave them one last shot," he said. "We threw down the gauntlet, and they didn't pick it up."

"If we want to head this off," he said, "we have to do it now."

The unions charge that the plan, which has been hailed as a bold step to rescue the troubled school system, would illegally transfer taxpayers' property to a private institution.

"There are two issues in the proposed agreement," said Paul Devlin, president of the mft "One is education reform in Chelsea, which we support enthusiastically and for which we have constantly offered ourselves as a partner."

"The other," he said, "is privatization and its adverse impact on the public interest and the tradition of democratic localism in education."

"It is on this issue that we part company with the school committee," the union president said.

Peter G. Greer, dean of Boston University's school of education, accused the unions of "kidnapping" school reform in Chelsea, and said the lawsuit and the board's vote were unlikely to impede the progress of the management agreement.

Noting that the school committee, the board of aldermen, the Chamber of Commerce, and the student council have all voiced support for the proposal, Mr. Greer said that "it seems there is one group standing alone [in opposition], and that group is the union."

"They are the single group standing against a major national model in urban education," he said. "All of a sudden, the students of Chelsea are important to them. Where were they over the past 10 years when test scores, teenage pregnancy, and the dropout rate became the worst in Massachusetts?"

Mr. Greer added that university officials plan to work with the union to try to reach an accord before the plan goes into effect.

"We're not going to turn this into a bout with the union," he said. "We want to involve them. We know this won't work without the teachers."

The state board's vote is advisory, but could be influential, observers say, when the legislature considers the plan next year. The legislature, which adjourned for the year last week, must approve any changes in local governance.

According to Edward Melikian, a spokesman for the state department of education, board members objected to provisions in the proposal that would exempt the university from state oversight laws.

"They don't want to come under the scrutiny that a public institution is under," Mr. Melikian said. "But they, in effect, will be acting at times as a school committee."

In addition, he said, board members were concerned about how the university planned to fund teacher-salary increases. "They are talking about raising salaries by raising private funds," Mr. Melikian said. "When they were asked what would happen if the funds dried up, they didn't have a good answer."

Mr. Greer said that university officials would work with the board's lawyers to try to find mutually acceptable language, and added that the board could reconsider its objections at a Dec. 20 meeting.

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