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Mass. Governor Seeks To Strip State Board, Chief of Power

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Even as Massachusetts officials continue their search for a new education commissioner, Gov. William F. Weld is proposing to strip that office and the state board of education of much of their authority and responsibility.

The recommendation marks Mr. Weld's second attempt to consolidate power over public education within the office of the governor in little more than a year.

Unlike his plan of a year ago, however, the current proposal would not abolish the state's lay-governing board, which has served as the model for many other state boards of education. (See Education Week, Feb. 13, 1991.)

The new plan calls for transferring authority for operational functions from the commissioner's office to the executive office of education. The state board also would lose its oversight responsibilities for those functions.

As a result of the shift, a secretary of education reporting directly to the governor would take over the state education department's legal, legislative, personnel, audit, and budgetary functions, along with the accompanying staff.

The commissioner and the state board of education would retain control of core-curriculum development and other academic duties.

Although no formal action has been taken on the Governor's new proposal, the education secretary has already been included in one elementary and secondary budgetary item this year. When lawmakers in January authorized $2.7 million to help school districts harmed financially by the state's school-choice initiative, the legislation required districts to submit their applications to the executive office of education.

The education secretariat was created last year as a compromise to the Governor's original proposal. Under the terms of the deal with lawmakers, the secretariat was given oversight responsibility for higher education, but precollegiate education was left in the hands of the state board and commissioner. The education secretary--currently Piedad Robertson--also was made a voting member of the state board.

Parallel Systems

Backers of Mr. Weld's proposal argue that it will reduce the fragmentation of policy under the current system.

"The purpose of transferring some of the powers ... from the board of education and commissioner to the secretary is so we can have a more parallel system between higher education and K-12,'' said Andy Gomez, the undersecretary of education.

"In order to provide better coordination, there has got to be some structure in place to facilitate the process,'' said Mr. Gomez. "We feel very strongly that doesn't tie the hands of the commissioner or the chancellor [of higher education].''

Even so, a number of observers said they doubt that lawmakers will accept the proposal wholesale. Members of the legislature, administration, and business community are meeting almost daily to negotiate provisions of what is expected to be a plan for reform of all aspects of public education.

"I myself do not expect major changes. The department will stay together as one unit. It will probably be restructured,'' said Martin S. Kaplan, a member of the state board.

"We are in the process of negotiating this,'' Mr. Gomez added.

The plan seems to enjoy little support outside the administration. Not surprisingly, it is opposed by some board members.

"If you take away the budget, lobbying, public relations, etc., you no longer have an independent board,'' said James F. Crain, the chairman of the board.

"I think it is important that the lay board continue to have the kind of authority it has,'' said Mr. Kaplan, a Weld appointee. "What we do have to strengthen is the working relationship between the board and the secretary.''

Nor does the plan have the support of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, a major player in the reform talks.

"We would favor a system pretty much the way it is now,'' said Jack Rennie, the chairman of the business alliance.

As the reform efforts play out, Mr. Rennie said, it will be crucial for the system to appear as credible as possible. A lay board, he contended, would lend integrity in cases where an official with close ties to the governor, such as the education secretary, might be susceptible to political pressure.

But Mr. Rennie also emphasized the need to improve the relationship between the secretary and the commissioner and the board. "Sometimes the secretary feels cut out of the loop,'' he noted.

New Commissioner Sought

Meanwhile, the state is still seeking a new commissioner to replace Harold Raynolds Jr., who resigned last summer in protest of budget cuts.

The proposal to diminish the power of the commissioner has reportedly cost the state one candidate, Peter Negroni, the superintendent of the Springfield, Mass., schools, who was one of six semifinalists.

Mr. Crain said, however, that he did not believe any of the candidates had bowed out because of the proposal. During the interviewing process, he said, all three finalists indicated they were willing to operate under whatever governance structure was in place, although some said they viewed the changes as inappropriate.

The board had been expected last week to name Ralph Sloan, the superintendent of the Norwalk, Conn., schools, as the new commissioner. The panel's search committee had recommended Mr. Sloan.

But the board, led by Mr. Kaplan and Ms. Robertson, voted instead to appoint an ad hoc committee to reconsider other contenders, including Robert Antonucci, the superintendent of the Falmouth, Mass., schools, along with Mr. Sloan.

The committee will have a month to report back to the board.

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