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Bill To Abolish Boston School Committee Advances

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Critics of the Boston School Committee moved a step closer to abolishing the elected body last week as the Massachusetts House approved a bill that would give the city's mayor the power to appoint committee members.

The 102-to-50 vote was not final, however, and an amendment offered by opponents of the bill appeared to radically alter the intent of the home-rule petition, which is being sought by the the city council and Mayor Raymond L. Flynn.

The amendment, sponsored by Representative Byron Rushing, a Democrat from Boston's South End who has been a leader in the fight to preserve the current school committee, would give the Boston superintendent of schools "exclusive authority" over collective-bargaining agreements. The school committee would not have to approve such agreements.

In addition, Mr. Rushing's amendment would grant the superintendent sweeping powers to appoint and promote all school-district employees, as well as to suspend, demote, and fire them.

The amendment also calls for the superintendent to submit a management plan for the district to the mayor, who would be required to accept or reject it within three months.

Mr. Rushing argued that the amendment would prevent the mayor from using the school system as a source of patronage jobs, while also holding him accountable for the management of the schools.

Proponents of abolishing the 13-member school committee, which has been repeatedly criticized as ineffectual and driven by political considerations, said last week that they feared the amendment could damage the bill's chance of final passage.

The measure must be voted on once more by the House before being sent back to the Senate for consideration in its amended form. The Senate already has approved the original version of the bill, which would give the mayor the authority to appoint a seven-member board from a list of candidates proposed by a 13-member nominating panel. (See Education Week, May 22, 1991.)

"The fear is that the opponents will now reopen the debate and prolong it," said Michael McCormick, a member of the city council who supports abolishing the elected school body.

"Like anything else," he said, "the best way to kill legislation is to engage in endless debate."

But Mark Roosevelt, a Beacon Hill Democrat who is the House chairman of the Joint Committee on Education, said that he was planning to hold another vote on the amendment this week.

"We're going to take another vote and take it out," Mr. Roosevelt said, adding that he was confident the same two-to-one majority of legislators that voted for the bill would go along with his plan.

Mr. Roosevelt said he allowed the amendment to the bill because it "just looked to be more innocuous than it is," but that upon reconsideration it was "not a good idea" to give the superintendent such broad powers.

Mr. Roosevelt and Edward J. Doherty, president of the Boston Teachers Union and a candidate for mayor, both said the amendment contains language that conflicts with or duplicates existing Massachusetts law. The law already gives the superintendent the power to hire and fire employees, Mr. Roosevelt noted.

Bostonians who are opposed to seeing the elected school committee replaced with an appointed body have continued to fight to preserve what they describe as residents' right to cast votes for their own representatives.

Many of the critics of an appointed board are members of minority groups, including all of the black and Hispanic members of the Boston legislative delegation.

The Rev. Graylan Ellis-Hagler, pastor of the Church of the United Community and a candidate for mayor, said minority Bostonians consider the bill to be a "racially insensitive" attempt by Mayor Flynn to gain control of the school system at the expense of its students, 80 percent of whom are members of racial or ethnic minorities.

"We know what the Mayor wanted was consolidation of his powers and the ability to park workers in that school system," claimed Mr. Ellis-Hagler, who is active in a newly formed group called the Right To Vote Movement.

Mayor Flynn has said repeatedly that the school committee is not accountable for its spending decisions and has failed to set educational policy for the troubled district.

Mr. Ellis-Hagler said his group would keep up the pressure on state lawmakers to vote against the bill. If that lobbying fails, he said, the group plans to explore several options, including filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of depriving residents of their voting rights.

What fundamentally divides supporters and opponents of the measure, however, is the question of whether changing the governance of the school system will improve student performance. Many members of minority groups claim it will not, while supporters insist that such a change is an essential step toward creating a more responsible body.

Critics of the current system note, for example, that the school committee has not yet reached a contract agreement with Lois Harrison Jones, the Dallas educator selected last month to become superintendent after a rocky 15-month search.

"If all this board does is hire and support an effective superintendent," Mr. Roosevelt said, "it will have been significant."

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