Legal Wrangling Over School Closings Delays Start of Boston Classes

By William Snider — September 06, 1989 3 min read

The start of classes in the Boston Public Schools has been delayed until next week by legal skirmishes over a plan to close five schools and consolidate four others.

The Boston School Committee’s plan ultimately prevailed on Aug. 25, when a state appeals court reversed a lower court’s judgment barring the closings.

But uncertainties caused by the legal battles delayed until last week notification of school assignments for some 3,400 students and 500 teachers, according to a district spokesman. Schools are now scheduled to open Sept. 11 and 12, instead of this week, as originally planned.

The district’s victory resolved a potential $2.7-million budget deficit and averted drastic proposed cuts in school athletics, library services, and alternative-education programs.

It also, however, sparked a new round of criticism of the school committee at a time when city leaders are considering several proposals to change the structure of the 13-member elected body.

After receiving similar recommendations from two separate commissions empaneled to study the district’s governance, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn took the leadership of a drive to replace the current school committee with a seven-member body appointed by the mayor.

Mr. Flynn has asked the city council to submit a non-binding referendum to the voters this fall on his proposal.

At least two city councillors, in turn, have offered alternate versions of a new committee structure.

One proposal is similar to the mayor’s, except that it contains a sunset clause under which the committee would revert to its old struc8ture after four years, unless state and local officials decided then to make it permanent.

The other would also reduce the committee to seven members, but would have them continue to be elected--three representing the city at large and four representing districts.

Critics of the current committee structure say that Boston is the only major metropolitan district with an elected governing body that does not have the authority to raise its own revenues. Few, however, suggest that the current situation in Boston be resolved by granting the school committee the power to levy taxes.

Instead, most of the proponents of governance reform are highly critical of the manner in which the current committee has conducted its business. They charge that the committee’s size and composition prevent efel15lfective and timely decisionmaking.

“Nobody ever answers for the lack of progress” in student-achievement indicators, said Ellen Guiney, Mayor Flynn’s advisor on education. “Another part of the problem is the committee’s lack of responsiveness to the needs of parents and students.”

Several school-committee members have vowed to fight the mayor’s proposal. They counter his charges by citing statistics they say demonstrate that the school system has improved markedly under their tenure.

But critics of the committee say the recent school-closing vote offers a prime example of their frustrations with the panel.

They note that, in recent years--a time when many facilities have experienced enrollment declines--the school committee has considered and rejected several plans to close and consolidate school buildings.

The committee’s initial decision in July to approve the current school-closing plan came just one month after it had rejected a similar but less drastic plan developed by a special commission. When the commission was formed earlier this year, however, the school committee had indicated that it considered itself bound by that body’s recommendations.

Parents’ and teachers’ groups charged in separate suits that the committee violated its own rule requiring hearings in affected communities before schools could be closed.

On Aug. 22, Superior Court Judge David M. Roseman barred the school closings, forcing the committee to seek budget cuts in other areas.

The appeals-court decision overturning that ruling has done little to quiet criticism of the committee.

“While democracy is very noble, in this particular school committee the democratic process is meaningless,” said Ms. Guiney. “They don’t obey their own rules and they ignore their own public statements.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 06, 1989 edition of Education Week as Legal Wrangling Over School Closings Delays Start of Boston Classes