Boston's New Superintendent Seeks To Rebuild the System

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Boston--During the first six weeks of Robert R. Spillane's tenure as superintendent of Boston's public schools, he has had to contend with a disgruntled teacher workforce, an indifferent community, administrative mismanagement, severe economic constraints, and a school committee tainted by corruption.

The teachers, at least, now pose less of a problem for Mr. Spillane, having voted last week not to strike. But the bitterness remains along with what appears to be a monumental task: rebuilding the public schools.

Mr. Spillane is inheriting a system that in recent years has been buffeted by virtually every problem afflicting major city school systems:

Boston has lost some 36,000 public-school students since 1970, and the trend is projected to continue downward. Twenty-seven schools closed this past summer and more may have to be shut down in the future;

Huge budget overruns have pitted the mayor and the school committee in open political warfare and have led to teacher layoffs and program cuts which have further alienated an already bitter teachers' union;

Political patronage and corruption have tarnished the system's image locally and nationally and have given rise to a movement to strip the school committee of its authority and bring wider citizen participation into the governance of the schools;

The schools are operating under a court-ordered desegregation plan supervised by a tough judge who, school officials bitterly complain, is insensitive and intrusive;

Racial problems, played out on national television a few years ago, continue to cause tension and unrest. A 1979 internal study revealed that only 24 percent of the city schools were then in compliance with all racial-ethnic percentages set by the court.

Despite this awesome legacy and the recent passage of Proposition 2, which means severe spending restraints for the future, Robert Spillane says he is confident the Boston Public Schools can be revitalized. And he has no doubt about his ability to withstand the political pressures bearing on the system over which he now presides.

"I think I'm one of the best politicians in Boston," the 46-year-old superintendent says, "but the schools should be run by a professional superintendent, not by politicians or by patronage." Mr. Spillane says patronage can be found in any system--not just in Boston. He is determined to remove the practice from his schools.

A Political Outsider

Mr. Spillane is only the second appointment made from outside the school system since 1909. He sees his appointment as "an indication they've had it with the inside process." He adds, "The school committee made a commitment to follow the process and accept the selection committee's choice."

But the committee appointed him only to fill the one-year term left under Robert Wood's contract. In fact were it not for a series of events, Mr. Spillane might still be in New York State.

When Mr. Wood was fired by the school committee, his replacement was Acting Superintendent Paul A. Kennedy, who died of a heart attack soon after taking the job. His acting replacement, Joseph M. McDonough, a 30-year veteran of Boston's public schools, had not applied for the superintendent's position and thus could not have been considered for the permanent post.

Boston School Committee President John D. O'Bryant says of Mr. Spillane's appointment, "The man that could have beat him out dropped dead."

Mr. O'Bryant says the new superintendent has brought "a fresh perspective to a system that has been parochial in its outlook. He stepped into a difficult situation but I think he's handled himself well."

But Mr. O'Bryant is reserving further judgment, however, until he sees who Mr. Spillane recommends for senior administrative officers. It was over just such a recommendation that Mr. Wood, resisting patronage pressures, quarreled with the committee and got fired.

'The Job Can Be Done'

Mr. Spillane claims he has accepted the problems he has inherited and is determined to correct them. "I know it sounds trite, but it's the challenge of the position," he says. "I want to be a part of that restructuring and rebuilding. I'm satisfied the job can be done, should be done, and will be done."

Mr. Spillane, who has 25 years' experience in elementary and secondary education, feels the the Boston superintendency will allow him to pursue his interest in urban education.

Prior to coming to Boston, Mr. Spillane spent three years as New York State's deputy commissioner of elementary, secondary, and continuing education. In New York, he says, the state plays an active role in the affairs of the New York City schools. And colleagues in New York who characterize Mr. Spillane as a "tough" and "dedicated" administrator were not surprised by his move to Boston.

"It's not a time to give up on the cities," Mr. Spillane declares. "Boston is known as a good city, but its schools have a reputation of disgrace and total disarray."

In a speech before Boston's City-wide Education Coalition, Mr. Spillane announced that he will concentrate on putting the school budget and management structure back in order; making all personnel more accountable for their performance; and making teaching and learning the primary focus of all activities.

Reports that administrators did not have a grip on the Boston schools were not exaggerated, according to Mr. Spillane. "It's difficult to manage when you don't know how your money is spent or where people are located," he says. Most participants agree that money is very much at the heart of Boston's problems. The school committee and the mayor's office wrangled publicly for months last year over the school administration's "loose fiscal controls" and its $30 million-plus budget deficit. By charter, school fund appropriations cannot be less than the year before and any increases have to approved by the mayor and council.

In April 1980, the court had to intervene when the mayor railed at the school committee's overspending and refused to provide additional funds needed to keep the schools open.

This year, school funds have been held at $210 million, the same level as the previous year's funding and $30 million less than what school officials believed would be necessary to continue operations.

After numerous meetings with the mayor, Mr. Spillane says he is sure that if the legislature approves a $75-million bond issue for the city the schools can expect more money if it is needed. "I have no problem asking for more money if we are overspending," Mr. Spillane says. But first, he continues, "We must get control of this place."

That effort to get control might begin with the desegregation plan ordered by Federal District Judge W. Arthur Garrity, Jr. in 1975. Mr. Wood, the former superintendent, complained bitterly that the judge was running the schools and that the order created vexing managerial problems and left him too little flexibility to deal with problems.

In order to remove the federal court's presence, Mr. Spillane says he will have to prove the schools will not revert to their previous condition. But that may be difficult to do. Figures from the Boston Municipal Research Bureau document the school district's sharp slide toward ethnic and racial isolation--a slide which has become more severe since the start of court-ordered desegregation.

While total enrollment declined 35 percent during the last decade, black and minority enrollment increased. Blacks and other minorities represented 36 percent of the public schools' enrollment in 1970 and 65 percent in 1980.

The solution to that problem, says Mr. Spillane, is attracting students back to the public schools. And the key to that, he admits, is rebuilding public confidence.

In his first few weeks on the job, he has devoted considerable effort to that task. "I've talked with just about everyone in town," he says, pointing out that the entire community has a stake in the public schools and must realize that fact if the situation is to be turned around.

Without widespread community involvement, Mr. Spillane notes, interest groups can exercise undue influence. "I can relate to all groups," Mr. Spillane insists, "but my constituency is the 10 percent of the families whose children attend Boston's public schools. He thinks the system should be judged by the programs it delivers to those students and not by whether it caters to special interests. But he knows that he must sell the public schools to the business community and to those without children in the schools if he is to succeed.

Mr. Spillane is not intimidated by the demands of running a major city school system. In New York, he supervised all services in the elementary, secondary, and continuing education department. That job gave him responsibility for 1,300 administrative employees, 729 school districts, 6,000 school buildings--both public and private. As the top administrator, he oversaw disbursement of $3.6 billion in state aid and $600 million in federal aid to local school districts.

He is now in command of a $210-million operation that includes 149 city schools, 62,835 students, and a teaching force of about 5,000.

Rosemarie Rosen, executive assistant in Mr. Spillane's New York department, describes him as a "tough administrator in the sense that he has high standards. He's dedicated himself," she says, "and expects thefrom his staff."

Ms. Rosen says that Mr. Spillane wanted more "front-line responsibility and the opportunity to accomplish something that Boston could provide in terms of service to kids." She believes he should have no trouble at all in the volatile political climate of Boston's public school system. "He's very skilled at dealing with people, getting them to move together, getting things done," Ms. Rosen adds.

Acting on his expressed commitment to keep the schools open--regardless--Mr. Spillane let it be known when Boston teachers threatened to strike last month that he would use any legal means at his disposal, including firing any striking teachers. "My role is to keep schools open and to educate the thousands of students in this city,"

Mr. Spillane said. "It's illegal for public employees to strike in this state and it's also forbidden by their contract."

Members of the Boston Teachers Union this month voted 1,404 to 836 against a strike that would have begun Sept. 21. Union members were bitterly divided over an affirmative-action plan which caused a number of white teachers with 10 years' seniority to lose their jobs while black and other minority teachers with fewer years' experience in the system were kept on.

Union officials sought a repeal of court-ordered affimative action, and as a result, black teachers indicated they would not join in any strike. But Mr. Spillane's threat, the division within the union, and the lack of public support for teachersearly influenced union members' decision not to strike.

The teachers' contract is the source of many problems facing the schools, Mr. Spillane believes. He suggests that the schools have lost competent and dedicated teachers because of the seniority clause. He says he would like the seniority system abolished as the sole factor dictating teacher retention. He would replace it with a good evaluation system based on "fitness and merit."

"It's a life and death issue to [the union]," Mr. Spillane admits. "But as professionals, they, too, realize you can't have seniority as the sole factor."

Within the next few weeks, the state legislature will be considering a bill that would remove the school committee's authority in schools and transfer it to the superintendent. But despite what he sees as the "mismanagement, chaos, and patronage" associated with the present system, Mr. Spillane says he has serious reservations about the measure.

"It's not a show of confidence in the superintendent or Spillane," he says. "It's a direct attempt to show a lack of confidence in the school committee with one in jail, one on trial, and one having served a sentence and now trying to regain his old seat."

Mr. Spillane says he likes the idea of increased authority for the superintendent. "But there are no checks and balances in that type of system," he notes, "and in the long run, that could lead to some very serious problems."

Vol. 01, Issue 04

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories