In Boston, Voters To Decide Whether To Elect Members

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Tucked beneath the shining skyscrapers of downtown Boston, the gray-pillared headquarters of the city's public schools projects an image of permanence and serenity.

But behind the stately facade, instability and even turmoil have been the watchwords during much of the school district's two-century history.

This fall, the prospect of yet another shakeup looms over the nation's oldest public school system. To many people here with an interest in school reform--educators, business leaders, and especially Mayor Thomas M. Menino--that's a deeply troubling prospect.

At issue is who will govern the 63,000-student district: a 13-member board elected by voters every two years, or the seven-member panel appointed by the mayor that has been in charge since 1992.

The question, which will appear on the citywide ballot Nov. 5, has given rise to passionate divisions and placed at risk an ambitious school-reform agenda to which Mr. Menino has tied his political fortunes.

As one of only a handful of cities nationwide in which the mayor has won broad power over an entrenched education bureaucracy, Boston is being closely watched across the country as it bids to salvage its schools.

"There's a sense for the first time in a long time that the Boston public schools can be turned around," said Jerome T. Murphy, the dean of Harvard University's graduate school of education and a strong supporter of the appointed board. "Going back to an elected committee, particularly one with 13 people, would undermine the progress being made. I'm scared."

But proponents of a return to an elected school committee, as school boards are known in Massachusetts, feel just as strongly. In their view, a bedrock of American freedom--government based on elected representatives--hangs in the balance.

'It's Democracy'

"It really concerns me that we would give up in Boston what we dumped tea in Boston Harbor for," said Jean McGuire, who served on the old elected board for a decade. "It's democracy, stupid."

Mr. Menino and his allies are well aware of the appeal of such arguments: The appointed board is invisible. It's in the mayor's back pocket. It's out of the touch with the people. It disenfranchises minorities and the poor.

"The mayor says, 'Trust me,'" said Ron Rhodes, the manager of the Campaign for an Elected School Committee, a local citizens' group. "He's got it backwards. What's required is that the civic leaders trust the people."

Yet as they enter the last leg of a well-financed campaign to save the appointed board, the mayor and his supporters are determined to convince voters here that their system is more democratic than it may seem.

Where Should Power Lie?

For months, they have argued that in recent years parents and community members have had more say than ever through the elected councils that govern individual schools.

They contend that the current board is more representative of the diverse, heavily minority student body than the elected one, which in its last years was made up of nine whites and four blacks.

Among the new board's seven members are two Hispanics and two African-Americans--including Chairman Robert Gittens.

And they note that appointees must come from candidates put forward by a 13-member nominating panel, only four of whose members are chosen by the mayor.

Last week, the defenders of the appointed board went a step further. Hoping to undermine claims that the current system deprives voters of a voice, Mayor Menino proposed legislation that would put the question of whether to retain the appointed board on the ballot every six years. The first such vote would occur in 2002.

But while trying not to cede the point, supporters of the appointed board have also insisted that the focus on "democracy" misses the point in a city where too many children cannot read and write. As the mayor put it during a recent interview: "The question is, are we getting the job done?"

His critics argue that, for most of the appointed panel's four-year history, the answer has been no.

"In four years, they've spent $1.6 billion--the most money ever spent by the school committee--and there's nothing to show for it," said City Councilor Francis "Mickey" Roache.

Alignment Seen

But appointed-board supporters say that only in the past year have conditions been in place to bring meaningful change. Since then, an important "alignment" has taken place: The mayor--who was elected in 1994--has all his own appointees on the board, and the board, in turn, now has its own superintendent.

Thomas W. Payzant took office a year ago after two years in the Clinton administration as the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education and 11 years as the superintendent of the San Diego schools. ("Payzant Leaves U.S. Ed. Dept. To Head Boston Schools," Sept. 6, 1995.)

Since Mr. Payzant arrived, the district has introduced academic standards and a new testing system, fired several principals for poor performance, and adopted a five-year plan to upgrade schools.

The superintendent has refrained from overtly taking sides in the debate over the board's future. But he makes it clear that he is concerned about continuity.

"When you have rapid turnover in a school system, then it's very hard to get the kind of sustained work that is necessary to make a positive difference for students," Mr. Payzant said in an interview.

To make their case, supporters of the existing board raise the specter of a return to the days of incessant feuding among board members who often were more concerned with grooming themselves for higher office than with the needs of schoolchildren.

It was partly that record that inspired then-Mayor Raymond L. Flynn's push for an appointed board, a move approved by voters in a nonbinding referendum in 1989 and enacted as a state law in 1991. The upcoming ballot question, which will ask whether the system of a 13-member elected board should be reinstated, is required under that law.

Some elected-committee supporters defend the old panel's frequent and fiery clashes as the price of democracy. They say the current board's propensity for unanimous votes shows that it is a rubber stamp for the mayor.

Still, a return to an elected panel does not mean a return to the past, supporters argue. Acknowledging that the former board was unwieldy, many contend there would be time to change it before new members would take office in 1998.

Moreover, advocates of an elected board don't buy the line that the new structure has removed politics from education--it's merely consolidated political power in one place, they say. The schools might fare fine under the current mayor, they argue, but what happens down the road?

"Mayor Menino will not be around forever," Mr. Roache said.

Anybody's Guess

Although they believe popular opinion is with them, elected-board supporters say they can't come close to matching their rivals financially. Mr. Rhodes of the Campaign for an Elected School Committee said his group has only $300 or $400 in the bank.

By contrast, the Boston Education Reform Committee, the corporate-funded organization formed to oppose an elected board, admits to having more than $100,000, earmarked mainly for television ads and campaign staff. A spokesman, Joseph Feaster, denied claims by Mr. Rhodes that the campaign had a $1 million war chest.

But despite their financial edge, it is supporters of the current board who believe they face an uphill fight. Just getting voters to focus on the ballot question--amid the presidential race and the hotly contested U.S. Senate race between incumbent Sen. John Kerry and Gov. William F. Weld--has been a challenge, they say.

And when voters do pay attention, efforts to frame the issue as one of restoring democracy have a powerful appeal.

The mayor's supporters "have a chance of turning it around," said Don Davies, a professor emeritus of education at Boston University. "But if the election were held today, it would undoubtedly pass."

Vol. 16, Issue 06

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