Blacks Question Boston Chief On Stand on Racial Issues

By Susan G. Foster — March 03, 1982 3 min read
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The “factual record” of Boston’s school superintendent, Robert R. Spillane, apparently was not enough to satisfy the two black members of the city’s five-member school committee, who have raised questions about Mr. Spillane’s racial “sensitivity” and his suitability for continuing in the job.

Date Delayed

The renewal of Mr. Spillane’s employment contract with the school committee was to have been considered last week. However, the date for considering a new four-year contract for the superintendent was delayed as the result of the intervention by the Corporation for Boston, a multi-community group dedicated to easing racial tension in the city since school desegregation began.

The corporation stepped in when it appeared that questions raised by a group of minority representatives would be ignored by the school committee, which had originally voted 3-2 against postponing its decision on renewing Mr. Spillane’s contract.

John D. O’Bryant, one of the two black school committee members, called the committee’s vote “racist,” and raised further questions about Mr. Spillane’s ability to manage a school system that has a predominately minority population without the support of the minority community.

Under the agreement negotiated by the corporation, the school committee has postponed its decision until after Mr. Spillane has delivered a March 2 speech detailing his position on desegregation, affirmative action, bilingual education, and special education.

Public Statement

The black school-committee members asked Mr. Spillane to make a public statement of his views on a number of issues before the contract vote. If the speech answers the questions raised by Mr. O’Bryant and his colleague, Jean M. McGuire, Mr. Spillane reportedly will be assured of their vote on his contract renewal later this month.

“There is concern that we not get into a contest with the black members of the committee” at a time when the public schools are making progress, Mr. Spillane said in an interview last week.

Mr. Spillane said he agreed “in good faith” to deliver the speech, but added that he would “not defend past practices.” He said the disproportionate number of black students in special-education classes has been viewed in the past as a way “to get rid of black students from regular classrooms.”

“My positions on desegregation and affirmative action are a matter of public record in the court,” Mr. Spillane said, referring to a December meeting with U.S. District Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr., who ordered desegregation of the city’s schools and continues to oversee them.

Mr. Spillane said that the speech should allay any remaining doubts about his racial sensitivity.

The contract delay and questions raised by the city’s minority community are the latest in a series of controversies that have plagued Mr. Spillane’s seven-month tenure as superintendent.

Recommendation Rejected

Recently, the school committee rejected his recommendation to lay off about 71 more teachers to reduce further a projected $3.7-million deficit.

School-committee members reasoned that additional layoffs would diminish the already low morale of the city’s teaching force, while reducing the school department’s projected deficit by only about $600,000, Mr. Spillane said last week.

The school committee’s decision, Mr. Spillane said, means that the money to cover the school system’s deficit will have to come from the city council. “If we’re forced to play hard ball with the city council, about 1,000 teachers could be without jobs,” he said.

However, at least one issue has been resolved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which reaffirmed Judge Garrity’s desegregation order exempting minority teachers from last year’s massive layoffs.

Judge Garrity’s order last fall increased racial tension in the teachers’ union when minority teachers refused to support a threatened teachers’ strike.

Current Problem

But Mr. Spillane said his current problem with the two black mem-bers of the school committee was triggered when he “challenged” a black administrator in the school department’s central office.

In addition, he said, Mr. O’Bryant and Ms. McGuire were concerned about a statement he made last year that busing to achieve racial bal-ance in the city schools has been a failure.

Mr. Spillane insists that while he is committed to desegregation, he believes that it is the “quality of the education at the end of the ride” that should be the measure of busing’s success.

A version of this article appeared in the March 03, 1982 edition of Education Week as Blacks Question Boston Chief On Stand on Racial Issues

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