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Criticism, Politics Buffet Boston Superintendent

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The superintendent of Boston's public schools has become the focus of harsh criticism and intense speculation over how long she will remain at the helm of the 64,000-student district.

Lois Harrison-Jones has fallen out of favor with Mayor Thomas Menino and some members of the school committee, The Boston Globe reported last month.

The newspaper also called for new leadership for the system in a lengthy editorial headlined "A Failing Grade for Harrison-Jones." The newspaper faulted the superintendent for "moving at a snail's pace" on school reform and argued that she suffers from a lack of vision and poor management skills.

Supporters have rallied behind the superintendent, who is the first black woman to head the school system. She was hailed by African-American leaders during last month's celebrations of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

The superintendent's four-year contract expires at the end of June, though it contains an option for a fifth year if she receives a satisfactory evaluation from the school committee this spring.

In an interview last week, Ms. Harrison-Jones said she intends to stay until her contract expires. She said she will decide along with the school committee whether to stay an extra year.

"If the Mayor would like to have someone of his own choosing, that's his prerogative," she said.

The furor over her job, she added, is "very annoying, because it does the very thing I have vowed I wouldn't do, and that is allow myself to be pulled away from my focus and vision to work in the best interest of children."

Rocky Tenure

Changes in the governance of the Boston schools have made the superintendent's tenure politically rocky.

Ms. Harrison-Jones was hired in the summer of 1991 by an elected, 13-member school committee. Four months later, the committee was abolished in favor of a seven-member panel appointed by the mayor.

The goal was to make the mayor accountable for the school system, which receives the bulk of its funding from the city. Then-Mayor Raymond L. Flynn clashed with Ms. Harrison-Jones and installed a top aide at the school department--a move seen as undermining her authority.

Mr. Menino, who was elected in 1993, made the superintendent a member of his cabinet and has pledged to improve education. The expiration of her contract would provide the first opportunity for the appointed school committee to hire its own superintendent, bringing about the governance alignment envisioned when the elected committee was abolished.

A spokeswoman for the Mayor's office said last week that the school committee, not Mr. Menino, will decide whether to retain Ms. Harrison-Jones.

William Spring, a member of the committee, refused to comment on the superintendent's performance, noting that the committee has begun its evaluation. "All the members of the school committee believe that we have made some quite-significant progress working together," he said.

'Neglected' District

Among her achievements, Ms. Harrison-Jones cites balancing the system's budget and funneling more resources into classrooms.

In her second year, she said, she increased instructional spending by 38 percent. She also has cut 131 positions from the central bureaucracy and overhauled special- and bilingual-education programs.

On her watch, the dropout rate has fallen and attendance has increased.

In partnership with the Boston Teachers Union, Ms. Harrison-Jones has overseen the expansion of school-based management from 31 schools to 117. She also helped negotiate a teaching contract last year that includes six "pilot schools," designed to operate with greater freedom from district and union regulations. They are scheduled to open next fall. (See Education Week, Nov. 9, 1994.)

Loretta Roach, the executive director of the Citywide Education Coalition, a citizens advocacy group, said she worries that if the superintendent leaves, some of those efforts could stall.

"My question is, if she doesn't stay around to move what she's put in place, then who's going to move it?" Ms. Roach said.

Ms. Harrison-Jones said critics who fault her for being slow to put new programs into place do not appreciate the planning that goes into them. Governance changes also have caused turmoil, the superintendent said, noting that she has worked with 26 school committee members, two Mayors, and two different city councils.

"What most people don't seem to understand is what it takes to make change in a long-neglected school district such as Boston," Ms. Harrison-Jones said. "I have never seen a district that had fallen into such disrepair."

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