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Chelsea Panel Urges Groups To Define Management Roles

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The roles and responsibilities of the four groups charged with governing and managing the Chelsea, Mass., public-school system need to be ''clarified and better defined," a report released last week by the Chelsea Oversight Panel has concluded.

The six-member panel was appointed by the state board of education in June 1989 to pay particular attention to the openness of decisionmaking in the Chelsea school system, which contracted with Boston University to manage its schools that year.

Critics of the unique arrangement had feared that the private university would not adhere to established public-interest laws in its management of the troubled school district.

In its first report, the panel notes that its work was hampered by the fact that Gov. Michael Dukakis's office did not provide funding for a part-time staff person to be the "eyes and ears" of the panel in Chelsea.

Instead, the panel gathered information for its report from a series of five open forums held in Chelsea during the 1989-90 school year.

The panel found that the current structure of policymaking and administration in the district is "ambiguous ... and causes misunderstanding and confusion about public accountability and access to decisionmaking."

The four key groups charged with running the school system are the Boston University Management Team, which functions as the school committee for the public-school system; the Chelsea School Committee, which ceded its governance authority to the university but continues to meet and has the authority to terminate the agreement with the university or to ask the university to reconsider its decisions; the Chelsea Executive Advisory Committee, a 15-member panel made up of representatives of school and community groups that was established by the university; and Diana Lam, the superintendent of schools.

The management team, the report notes, both makes policy and decides how it should be carried out, instead of leaving such details to the superintendent.

Irwin Blumer, chairman of the panel and superintendent of the Newton school system, said the distinction is critical if residents are to understand the decisionmaking proel15lcess and be able to organize themselves to have an impact on it.

"I don't see our report as being negative toward b.u.," Mr. Blumer said. "We've acknowledged that they've started an incredibly complex task and made lots of progress."

In its analysis of Boston University's interaction with the Chelsea community, which is made up primarily of low-income residents who are members of minority groups, the report concludes that the university has been "unsuccessful in convincing several major constituencies that it is sensitive to their input."

It also adds that the university is sometimes "arrogant" in the manner in which it conveys its belief that too much involvement can be counterproductive to a school system.

Peter R. Greer, dean of the university's school of education and chairman of the mangement team, said he was disappointed with the report's conclusions.

"We haven't met the standards of parts of the community," Mr. Greer said. "But in comparison to what was in Chelsea, we're eons ahead."

He said the report failed to explore the question of whether the university had held open meetings, maintained public records, and properly handled personnel records and relations in the district.

"This is our strong suit," Mr. Greer said. "It's disappointing."

But he agreed that the governance of the Chelsea project, which he called "a little fuzzy," needs to be refined.

The report also commends the university for the energy and initiative it has shown in involving itself in Chelsea; lauds the "dynamic leadership" of Superintendent Lam; and praises a range of educational and management initiatives undertaken since the project began.

It cites in particular the radical restructuring of the high school in a short period of time, the grants and curriculum-development projects that have involved teachers in meaningful ways, and the improved management of school-business affairs.

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