Management Plan for Chelsea Schools Is Approved
The Chelsea, Mass., school committee last week gave final approval to a groundbreaking proposal that would turn over much of the district's management to Boston University.
But the action angered members of the city's Hispanic community, who said their concerns were not addressed in the plan.
Several Hispanic leaders said last week that they were not opposed to allowing Boston University to play a role in the district's administration, but were primarily concerned with the lack of Hispanic involvement in the plan's formulation.
The leaders also said they would consider mounting a legal challenge to the proposal, after the school committee refused to delay consideration of the plan for two weeks, as requested in a petition signed by more than 300 Hispanic parents.
The issues raised by Hispanic leaders in Chelsea add a new twist to an already controversial effort. The school district's unprecedented attempt to turn over most of its operations to a private university has also drawn the fire of the local teachers' union and its state and national affiliates, who are trying to stop the action in court.
The plan is also likely to face tough scrutiny from state lawmakers, who will be asked to grant the city special "home-rule" exemptions from laws to enable the experiment to proceed.
Last week's vote marked an important point in the debate, said Peter G. Greer, dean of the university's school of education, "because we're moving out of the Chelsea arena into the state arena."
Although Chelsea's mayor and board of aldermen have yet to formally request the home-rule exemptions from the legislature, their support for such a course of action is already well established, he said.
The plan approved last week contains what its sponsors claim are several significant modifications to the pact tentatively approved by the school committee last November.
Most of the changes were intended to respond to concerns by state and local officials centering on the complicated issue of private-sector employees performing duties for a public institution.
The new language in the accord will assure that policy decisions affecting the school district will be made only in open public meetings, and that district records will remain public records, supporters said.
It also clarifies the legal liabilities of each of the parties, granting the university the same protections from legal claims as granted to public employees, they said.
In addition, the contract approved last week specifies that the state auditor and state inspector general will retain the right to audit the expenditures of all public funds used in the project, although any private funding solicited by the university on behalf of the schools would be kept separate for accounting purposes.
One of the major attractions of the plan for the school committee has been a pledge from university officials to seek substantial amounts of additional funding for school programs from corporations, foundations, and other private sources.
Teacher-union officials, however, disputed the claims that the new language solved the issues they have raised in opposing the plan.
"It is an obvious attempt to answer some of the criticisms, but they really did not improve the agreement," said Donald W. Menzies, president of the Chelsea Teachers Union, which is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.
Local, state, and national union officials remain committed to fighting the plan in court, based on their contention that it is unconstitutional for any institution other than an elected body to spend public funds, he said.
In contrast to a November hearing at which most of those present hailed the plan enthusiastically, the mood at last week's meeting was considerably more tense, several participants said.
The school committee rejected a motion that would have allowed representatives of the teachers' union and Hispanic groups to address the board about their concerns.
They also declined to delay a final vote on the matter for two weeks while a Spanish-language translation was prepared and debated.
"They were given an opportunity to raise their concerns last November," said Andrew P. Quigley, a 30-year veteran of the school committee. "It's not my fault or the school committee's fault if they didn't avail themselves of it."
Given the pressing needs of students in the district for better educational opportunities, he added, "it's nothing less than criminal that it would take this long" to get the pact approved.
But the Hispanic leaders considered it "a slap in the face" that the school committee acted on the proposal before listening to their concerns, said Marta T. Rosa, chairman of the Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs, one of several local advocacy groups that wished to address the meeting.
"The school committee made it very clear to the community that their input was not needed," she said. "What is the rush? This is a 10-year plan, so why not look into all of its aspects?"
She and others said that the Hispanic community wants to be sure that its counsel is considered in every phase of the project, that parents will be encouraged to become more involved in their schools, and that any adjustments in the district's bilingual-education program will respect their native language and culture.
Chelsea's Hispanic population "is ready now to start getting involved in politics," said Jimmy Torres, an afl-cio organizer from Puerto Rico who was brought to Massachusetts a month ago by the aft to serve as an advocate for the Hispanic viewpoint on the plan.
Boston University's Mr. Greer attributed the rising tensions to "just bad timing, not any collusion or subterfuge" on the part of supporters.
"The Hispanic community happened to gear up at an untimely moment--the very moment when the agreement was about to be signed," he said.
"I think it's really healthy that a Hispanic constituency is forming to fight for education," he added. "But I'd prefer to see them expend their energies on implementing the project rather than trying to hold it up."