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Teachers' Contract At Issue in Contest For Boston Mayor

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When the Boston School Committee and the local teachers' union announced last week that they had tentatively agreed on a new contract, the pact instantly became a hot-button issue in the city's eight-way mayoral race.

With little time left before the Sept. 21 preliminary election--which will narrow the field to the top two vote-getters--the candidates began debating whether the contract is affordable and delivers the reforms needed to improve the Boston schools.

Education has been one of voters' top concerns throughout the campaign, ranking just below crime and the need for more jobs.

Schools certainly were one of former Mayor Raymond L. Flynn's preoccupations. Mr. Flynn entered the history books when he successfully led a drive to replace the city's 13-member elected school committee--the nation's oldest school board--with a smaller, appointed body.

The theory behind the change was to align the school department more closely with city government, which controls the department's purse, and to make the mayor more accountable for the state of the schools.

But after 18 tumultuous months under the new system, during which Mr. Flynn openly criticized Superintendent Lois Harrison-Jones and was accused of being the school committee's puppetmaster, the Mayor left Boston to become the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Now, his hand-picked school committee has brokered a contract that is giving heartburn to Thomas M. Menino, the Acting Mayor and a leading candidate in the race.

Mr. Menino, the former president of the city council, argued last week that the pact would cost $120 million over three years, including the cost of bringing other school employees' contracts into parity.

The school committee, meanwhile, estimates that the contract, which would replace an agreement that expired a year ago, would cost only $89 million.

"Basically, the city, given its fiscal realities, cannot afford it,'' Howard Leibowitz, Mr. Menino's press secretary, said of the proposed pact. "We can't spend money we don't have.''

As the incumbent and a front-runner in the campaign, Mr. Menino is viewed as having the most riding on the new contract. He had pushed for the negotiations to conclude before the preliminary election, hoping that the result would be a landmark agreement that advances reform.

Contract Vote Delayed

The announcement of the new contract insured a smooth opening of school last week for Boston's 60,000 students. The Boston Teachers Union had vowed not to start another school year without such an agreement, since its members worked last year under an expired contract.

But the hail of criticism about the contract's cost, along with questions raised by several school committee members, prompted the panel to postpone its final vote. Despite the delay, members of the Boston Teachers Union approved the agreement last week. If it is approved by the school committee, the city council still must agree to pay for it.

Edward Doherty, the union president, said the agreement responds to criticism that "the union wants to write very restrictive rules and doesn't want to change the status quo, and is not willing to experiment and give new ideas a try.''

"In many respects,'' he added, "it is a groundbreaker on reform issues.''

In addition to giving teachers an 11 percent raise over three years, the contract includes money to add an hour and 25 minutes to the school day in the second and third years to give teachers time for common planning and staff development. In the third year, 15 minutes would be tacked on to the day for instruction.

In the second and third years, teachers and paraprofessionals would be eligible to receive performance bonuses for reaching both systemwide improvement goals and schoolwide targets. The contract also includes financial incentives for schools to vote for school-based management, and $1.5 million for teacher training.

One of the boldest items calls for $100,000 in grants to set up six "Explorer Schools,'' a pet reform idea of the school committee and the business community.

The schools, to be established at sites across the city by Boston educators, would be freed from all union and contract restraints, could set their own pay scales and budgets, and could be staffed by educators from outside the system.

School-based management also would get a boost under the contract. If 70 percent of the staff in a school-based-management building agreed, the school could unilaterally waive both union rules and district policies.

"Schools will be able to restructure the way they deliver educational services'' without jumping through a lot of hoops, Mr. Doherty explained.

But the pact's critics argued last week that it is simply a grab bag of reforms, each with its own price tag. Some also questioned whether the touted reforms duplicated provisions for school-site councils and charter schools contained in Massachusetts' new school-reform law.

"The important reforms of this contract should represent a commitment to school improvement by the teachers for a reasonable salary increase, rather than a menu of reforms, each with its own added cost,'' argued Samuel R. Tyler, the executive director of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, in a letter to Mr. Menino urging him to reject the agreement.

Mr. Tyler wrote that the "majority of teachers'' could actually receive raises of 27 percent over the three years. And if principals and other school employees also receive 11 percent increases in their base wages, Mr. Tyler estimated that the contract could cost more than $110 million.

Governance Debate

Mr. Flynn had assured the schools a spotlight in the mayoral campaign--and flabbergasted many Bostonians--by suggesting, as he was packing up for Rome, that the city return to an elected school board chaired by the mayor. He also suggested moving up a scheduled referendum on Boston school governance from 1996 to next year.

Most of the eight candidates running for mayor have made a point of stating whether they are for an elected or an appointed school committee and when they would favor making a governance change, if ever.

The leading contenders in the race are Mr. Menino; Robert C. Rufo, the Suffolk County sheriff; James T. Brett, a state representative; and Rosaria Salerno, a member of the city council.

The other candidates are Bruce Bolling, a city council member and the only African-American in the race; Christopher Lydon, a television journalist; Diane Moriarty, a lawyer and the only Republican candidate; and Frances M. Roache, who resigned as the city's police commissioner to run for mayor.

The two candidates who get the most votes on Sept. 21 will face off on Nov. 2.

Mr. Bolling, the chairman of the city council's education committee, has been the most vocal advocate of a return to an elected committee. He held a hearing last month to discuss whether the city should place a nonbinding question on the November ballot asking voters whether they wanted to replace the appointed, seven-member committee with an elected body of no more than seven members.

But in an interview, even Mr. Bolling said he believes that "structural change in terms of accountability at the school site and within the classroom'' is a more pressing concern than governance.

Although the education committee rejected the proposed referendum, the fact it even got a hearing angered school committee members, including Luis A. Velez, who wrote to Mr. Bolling accusing him of trying to use the issue to whip up support in minority communities for his mayoral bid.

Mr. Velez argued that the school committee has accomplished a great deal in its short lifetime. Still, he conceded that it suffered from Mr. Flynn's "interference'' and failed to publicize its achievements.

In an interview, Paul A. Parks, the school committee's chairman, asserted that the group of Flynn appointees has "done things no other school committee has done so far.''

Its accomplishments, Mr. Parks said, include balancing its budget, funneling more money to classrooms, giving parents a greater choice of schools, putting together an innovative vocational-education program, and creating a corporation to oversee school athletics.

Along with those achievements, Mr. Velez wrote in his letter that the committee had also cut administrative positions and transportation costs, increased funding for books and supplies, developed student-performance standards, reformed special education, and expanded kindergarten classes.

"This committee has accomplished a lot without receiving any credit for it,'' agreed Mr. Tyler of the municipal-research bureau.

"The public isn't convinced yet that the appointed board is contributing that much of a difference,'' he added, "but they are willing to wait until November 1996 to give the new mayor and committee the opportunity to show what they can do.''

In addition to Mr. Bolling, three other candidates--Mr. Brett, Ms. Salerno, and Mr. Rufo--have said they support returning to an elected school committee.

'Bashing' Schools

Mr. Lydon, the television-show host, has the most radical reform agenda. It calls for the school department to be "dismantled,'' open competition to operate charter schools, and contracting out support services.

Mr. Lydon also has heaped scorn on the teachers' union, charging that restrictive union work rules have hamstrung reforms. Last month, he unsuccessfully sued to stop Acting Mayor Menino from negotiating or approving a new teachers' contract, arguing that it would be unlikely to advance reform.

The candidates also have spent a lot of time debating such perennial reform topics as making schools safer, improving student discipline, giving princpals more authority, and increasing parental and community involvement.

Hattie B. McKinnis, the executive director of the Citywide Parents Council, complained that the candidates are "bashing'' the schools for shortcomings that have already been addressed. Although the appointed school commitee is not as responsive to parents as the elected body was, she said, the system has settled down since Mr. Flynn left.

"I really feel that with the pressure from the former Mayor gone, there will be more cooperation between the superintendent, the school committee, and city hall,'' she said, "and that's what we as parents are looking for.''

Boston's next mayor will have a chance in December to appoint two new members of the school committee to replace members whose terms are ending. The new mayor also could decide to replace others.

Within 14 months after the election, the mayor will be able to pick a majority of the committee's members. Within 20 months, that committee, if it so chooses, will be able to select a replacement for Ms. Harrison-Jones, who was hired by the elected panel.

Those developments would bring the city closer to the governance model that was envisioned when the change from an elected to an appointed committee was made.

"The uniformity of purpose that should come from the mayor appointing the committee, and the committee appointing the superintendent--Boston has never had,'' Mr. Tyler said.

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