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Boston University-Chelsea Pact Clears First Two Hurdles

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Chelsea, Mass--At the end of a three-hour public hearing, the school committee in this working-class community last week tentatively approved a landmark agreement to allow a private university to manage its school system over the next 10 years.

After hearing expressions of support from dozens of local residents at the jammed hearing, the committee decided, by a 5-to-2 vote, to authorize its chairman to sign a management contract with Boston University. The agreement will be subject to approval of the contract's final wording.

The vote came hours after a state judge rejected an attempt by the local teachers' union to block the proposed agreement.

The union had argued that the unprecedented proposal amounted to an unconstitutional transfer of power from the elected school committee to a private entity.

But a majority of committee members said that an extreme step was needed to help turn the troubled school system around.

"It may be fine to stand on principle in an affluent suburb," said Bruce G. Robinson, the committee's chairman. "But a city like Chelsea that is so poor, so needy, is a heck of a place for them to stand on principle."

The panel's action, said Andrew P. Quigley, the plan's sponsor, represented a vote of confidence in the university's ability to improve the schools.

"We have within our grasp," Mr. Quigley said before the vote, "the opportunity to help the students in this poor city regain the educational standards for which Chelsea was so well known for so many years.''

"If the educational problems of poverty can be attended to, sorted out, and overcome in this small city," he added, "the same solutions can be tried in the great communities in this nation."

As a practical matter, the committee's vote sets in motion a series of steps that must be taken before the plan can be implemented.

Following the committee's approval of the management contract, the city's board of aldermen and the state legislature must provide statutory authority for bu's management role.

The committee's action will also enable the university to begin soliciting contributions to help fund its ambitious reform plans, according to John R. Silber, bu's president.

"I can't raise a nickel without a contract authorizing me to do so,'' he told the committee. "No philanthropist would give money to Chelsea unless there is a change in the management of the schools."

The committee meeting attracted the greatest attendance in memory, members agreed. More than 200 residents--many of whom sported hand-written signs reading "I want bu How about U?"--crammed the City Hall hearing room, along with a host of reporters and television-camera operators.

The extraordinary turnout, observers said, reflected the intense interest the proposal has generated among the 25,000 residents of this blue-collar city across the Mystic River from Boston.

Many of the students, parents, and business leaders who spoke at the hearing said bu's offer represented Chelsea's best hope to reverse its declining educational fortunes.

"If we let this opportunity go by tonight, it won't come by again," said Edward Ellis, an alderman. "Boston University is not going to come knocking on our door again."

The university's intervention is needed, he and others argued, because the quality of the schools has dropped past the point where local school officials can provide much help.

Many graduates, they noted, lack the skills necessary for college or the job market, and many parents--including Mayor John J. Brennan Jr., a school-committee member--have opted to send their children to private or parochial schools.

The testimony was so overwhelmat one skeptical committee member, Anthony Tiro, voted for the plan despite his reservations.

"Parents want it," he said. "Those are the ones I represent."

Mr. Tiro added, however, "I hope you all know what you're getting, and the price you're paying for it."

The few discordant notes at the hearing were sounded by teachers and teachers' union officials, who argued that the price the city would pay for the university's assistance was too high.

"We don't need to take away the rights of the democratic school committee and the community," said Mike Heichman, a social-studies teacher at Williams Middle School. "What kind of problem are we trying to solve?"

Rather than accept a flawed plan, added Bella Rosenberg, special assistant to Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the school committee should work with the teachers to develop effective school reform.

The aft, she said, has implemented "education-reform plans other districts dream about."

Mr. Silber, while acknowledging that he could not guarantee success, responded that his university's proposal had "a better chance than any I have heard."

In addition, he denied that the plan would take away teachers' rights or the school committee's authority.

"The teachers' union does not have the slightest thing to fear from Boston University," he said. "Teachers have every right to have a union, and we have no desire to discourage any teacher from joining one."

"At the same time," he added, "bu wants to restore dignity to the teaching profession. How much respect can the union have if the teachers of Chelsea destroyed an opportunity to improve the public schools?''

Mr. Silber noted that none of the "legitimate authority" would be taken away from the school committee.

"We will take away what you never had a right to do," he said, "use the school committee for political patronage. That will have to end."

"What you will get in return," Mr. Silber told committee members, ''is the highest praise from the citizens in Chelsea for being high-minded public servants."

Earlier in the day, Judge Walter Steele of the Suffolk County Superior Court indicated that he agreed with the union that the proposed management agreement might violate the state's constitution.

"I can see constitutional doubts," he said.

But he apparently accepted arguments by the school committee's lawyer, Howard L. Greenspan, that because a formal contract does not yet exist, the union's attempt to block the plan was premature.

"I don't think you can make a determination until you know what the parties have agreed to," Mr. Greenspan said. "I don't know if the school committee is going to enter into an agreement with the university."

Paul Wilson, a lawyer for the university, said that many of the issues the union raised "will later be resolved by changes in the proposal."

But union officials insisted that the legal battles would continue.

"It's not over yet," said Paul Devlin, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers. "A decision as critical as the constitutionality of privatizing a public-school system should be made by higher courts."

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