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Payzant Leaves U.S. Ed. Dept. To Head Boston Schools

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Thomas W. Payzant will leave his high-ranking post in the U.S. Department of Education next month and return to the nitty-gritty world of urban education--as the superintendent of the Boston public schools.

Mr. Payzant, the department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education since 1993, has announced that he will take the reins of the 63,000-student district on Oct. 1.

"I'm only doing this now because there's no way to control the timing of an opening like Boston," Mr. Payzant said in a telephone interview. The 54-year-old Boston native said he was attracted to the district because parents, educators, business leaders, and elected officials there appear poised to join forces for the benefit of the schools.

Mr. Payzant still must negotiate a contract with the city's school committee. The Education Department has not announced who will assume his responsibilities or when a successor might be named. The assistant secretary's position is presidentially appointed and requires Senate confirmation.

The Boston school committee chose the former San Diego schools chief last month. Mr. Payzant was selected over Anthony Alvarado, the superintendent of one of New York City's community school districts, and Lewis H. Spence, who until recently was the state-appointed receiver of the city government of Chelsea, Mass. (See Education Week, Aug. 2, 1995.)

Despite strong community support for Mr. Alvarado, Mayor Thomas Menino and others lobbied successfully for Mr. Payzant, banking on his national reputation as a reformer capable of building consensus among disparate groups.

Mr. Payzant last month named a 21-member transition team to help him formulate a plan of action for the district. The panel--headed by Robert S. Peterkin, the director of Harvard University's Urban Superintendents Program--includes community leaders, higher education officials, and teachers.

Mr. Payzant replaces Lois Harrison-Jones, who stepped down when her contract expired in June after months of rocky relations with the mayor and some members of the appointed school committee. (See Education Week, Feb. 1, 1995.)

The mayor and others criticized Ms. Harrison-Jones' management skills and the slow pace of school reform in the district.

A Political Post

Mr. Payzant's appointment marks the first time the city's mayor played a major role in choosing a superintendent.

In 1991, the year Ms. Harrison-Jones assumed the post, the state legislature abolished the city's elected 13-member board and replaced it with a mayorally appointed, seven-member panel. The move was designed to make City Hall more accountable for the schools, which receive most of their funding from the city.

Observers said the new alignment may bode well for Mr. Payzant, who already has more than 20 years' experience in urban schools.

He headed the San Diego district for a decade before his appointment to the Education Department. He has also held the top post in the Oklahoma City and Eugene, Ore., schools.

In San Diego, Mr. Payzant managed a system with 130,000 students and a budget of more than $600 million.

During his tenure, students' standardized-test scores rose and local schools won more decisionmaking authority. Mr. Payzant also developed a good rapport with community groups and the local teachers' union, said Kay Davis, a former school board president there.

"He lasted more than nine years as an urban superintendent: That says something," said Ms. Davis, who is now the director of San Diego's Business Roundtable for Education. "He had unanimous support from the board and from parents."

A Tough Sell?

Parents in Boston, however, may be a tougher sell.

During the school committee's search, most parent groups rallied behind Mr. Alvarado, a former chancellor of the New York City system whose charisma and record working in urban schools impressed them. Mr. Spence was the dark horse candidate throughout the race, despite his reputation for turning around failing public agencies.

Observers said Mayor Menino's strong support for Mr. Payzant was enough to make the vote of the school committee unanimous, although several members privately endorsed Mr. Alvarado.

Hattie B. McKinnis, the executive director of the Citywide Parent Council, a group that oversees the district's parent councils at the school level, said community leaders are prepared to work closely with the new chief even if he was not their first choice.

"We just want him to be as accessible to us as Dr. Jones was," Ms. McKinnis said, adding that the political wrangling leading up to the previous superintendent's departure upset many parents.

"We've heard great things about [Mr. Payzant's] work," she added. "But we just hope he doesn't scrap what we have that's already good."

For his part, Mr. Payzant said he will focus first on setting clear expectations for all of the district's students, about 80 percent of whom are members of minority groups. He also hopes to speed the district's efforts to transfer more authority from the central office to the schools.

And Mr. Payzant said he will seek ways to improve the city's high schools--a frequent target of critics. Last spring, one high school lost its state accreditation, and several others could be facing probationary status, the future schools chief said.

The district is also facing a lawsuit over the constitutionality of its race-based admissions policy at the renowned Boston Latin School. (See story, this page.)

This month, Mr. Payzant is traveling to the city on the weekends to bone up on his skills. But he said he hopes his past experience will help him get back in the game without too much trouble.

"The urban superintendency is in my blood, I think," he added.

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