A Frustrated Boston City Council Votes To Abolish School Committee

By Ann Bradley — December 12, 1990 4 min read

Frustrated with the school committee’s stalled search for a new superintendent, the Boston City Council last week approved a rule petition that would abolish the 13-member committee and place the schools under the control of the mayor.

Under the proposal, the district would have no school board, making it unique among the nation’s more than 15,000 school districts, according to a spokesman for the National School Boards Association.

Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, who has long city schools, was expected to sign the unprecedented petition immediately. The proposed change in the city’s charter, which would give the mayor the power to appoint a superintendent, would make the school department a “line item” in the city’s budget like any other department.

The measure must now be submitted to the appropriate committees during Massachusetts’ 1991 legislative session, which begins next month.

The council’s vote represents the third time in two years that city leaders have attempted to change the governance of the public-school system. A nonbinding referendum asking voters their opinion of creating an appointed school committee was narrowly approved in November 1989, but was not pursued because it failed in predominantly minority neighborhoods.

In September, the city council hastily crafted a proposal for a hybrid elected-appointed board in an attempt to get the measure on the November ballot, but it died in the face of opposition from state legislators.

Opinion late last week was mixed on whether the new petition, which came up very suddenly and was passed on a 10-to-3 vote without public hearings, would be approved by the legislature and signed by the state’s new governor.

“This is going to be a very difficult fight, because it is a dramatic departure,” said Ellen Guiney, Mayor Flynn’s education adviser and a member of the superintendent search committee.

Ms. Guiney noted that the proposal could still be modified to incorporate ways to involve parents in setting school policy.

In the past few weeks, the committee’s fitful, six-month-long search for a new superintendent to replace Laval S. Wilson, who was fired last February, has broken down amid charges of racial discrimination.

The furor prompted the only nationally known semifinalist for the post--John A. Murphy, the superintendent of schools in Prince George’s County, Md.--to withdraw from consideration, charging that the school committee was more interested in playing local politics than in educating children.

The search, conducted by a 29-member panel composed of school-committee members and community leaders, was plagued from the outset by controversy over the race and ethnicity of its members. The original September deadline for filling the position also was moved back to January.

But it was the final uproar over the selection of five semifinalists from the pool of 39 candidates that prompted the city council to take its dramatic action.

The committee announced that it had chosen five men: Mr. Murphy, who is white; Cecil F. Carter, the former superintendent of schools in Savannah-Chatham County, Ga., who is black; Michael Fung, an Asian-American who is superintendent of the high-school zone in Boston; David E. Sawyer, superintendent of the Pickens County, S.C., schools, who is white; and Charles Gibbons, the executive director of the Boston Plan for Excellence, who is white.

But shortly after the committee announced its decision, the members learned that Mr. Sawyer is not black, as they had originally believed.

They also discovered that Mr. Carter had been dismissed from his previous position in Georgia.

The choices prompted immediate denunciations from some women’s groups and from Boston’s Hispanic community, which charged that the panel had overlooked better-qualified Hispanic candidates. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination also threatened a lawsuit.

The committee decided to begin the search process anew.

Peggy Davis-Mullen, a school-committee member who chairs the search committee, said the panel still plans to reopen its search. Members late last week were awaiting a legal opinion on whether the four current semifinalists must remain under consideration.

“I don’t frankly give a damn what they do,” Ms. Davis-Mullen said of the city council. “I’m going to chair this search and find the best possible superintendent for this school system.”

Bruce Bolling, a city council member from Roxbury who voted against the proposal, said he believes it would deprive the city’s residents of a voice in setting educational policy.

“There is no question in my mind that the perception of the school committee at this juncture is that it is to tally a bankrupt system,’' Mr. Bolling added. “It has no credibility, no integrity, and no demonstrated capacity or willingness to do what it is legally mandated to do.”

Mr. Bolling unsuccessfully offered an amendment to the home-rule petition that would have created a seven- member appointed school advisory board to the mayor, whose members were to reflect the racial and ethnic makeup of the city’s students.

John McDonough, a state legislator who is chairman of the Boston legislative delegation, called the council’s repeated attempts to change the school committee “repeated cannon blasts that end up being duds.”

“The enormous difficulty they have had with less radical proposals would suggest to me that this one would face even more difficult challenges,” he added.Nelson Merced, a state representative from Boston, said he was “completely opposed” to the petition, be cause it gives the mayor control of the schools and does not address the real problems of the school system.

“To a certain extent, this is diversionary,” Mr. Merced said. “Parents are clamoring for school reform that they can see, and the solutions some elected officials are proposing are governance changes.’'

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 1990 edition of Education Week as A Frustrated Boston City Council Votes To Abolish School Committee