`Help Wanted' At Boston Schools

Hub seeks superintendent with skills to run ambitious program in politicized atmosphere. PUBLIC EDUCATION

SCHOOL bells rang on a dissonant note as Boston pupils returned to classrooms this week: The system is without a leader. The post of superintendent has been vacant since February.

The Boston School Committee is under fire not only for failure to find a new top administrator, but also for failing to meet a deadline for filing a report on revamping the city's high schools.

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Harold Raynolds, frustrated by the committee's seeming inability to address problems in vocational and special education and in implementing a new pupil-assignment program, has hinted at state takeover of the school system.

Mayor Raymond Flynn, in a referendum last year, won the right to abolish the elected School Committee and appoint a seven-member board. He backed away from this move in the face of protests by poor and minority constituents.

But the mayor is considering other options, including a school committee with some elected, some appointed members.

There is general agreement among those involved that a new proposal for reform of Boston school governance will be on the November ballot. But as yet there is no consensus on what form it should take.

With the new student-assignment program taking effect in all high schools this year, Raynolds says the state ``may have to take over the planning function [of the school committee].''

The program enables students and their parents to choose the schools they prefer to attend. Critics have faulted the assignment program, which went took effect for grades kindergarten through six last fall. They say there is too much inequality among the city's schools, and in many cases parents' first choices of the schools they would like their children to attend are denied.

The school committee ``has to be shaken up, altered, changed in some way,'' Raynolds says.

In addition to the mayor's proposal, other options for revamping the School Committee could appear on the November ballot as referendum questions. One proposal, supported by state Rep. Nicholas Paleologos (D), who is running for lieutenant governor, calls for four appointed and three elected school committee members.

In defense of the beleaguered School Committee, member Peggy Davis-Mullin - who is leading the search for a new superintendent - says: ``I think right now it's the thing to do to bash public education and the Boston School Committee.

``It's almost as if the School Committee is responsible for the decline of Western civilization.''

Although she acknowledges that the committee is having difficulties, Ms. Davis-Mullin says the search for the new school chief is progressing well.

She predicts a new superintendent will be selected by January 1991.

The goal had been to have the new superintendent selected before schools reopened this fall.

The post has remained vacant since the School Committee dismissed Supt. Laval Wilson last February.

Dr. Wilson, Boston's first black superintendent, had been criticized for failing to address low student test scores and the city's 40 percent high school dropout rate.

Observers say racial tensions have contributed to the problems of the Boston system. Some 80 percent of the pupils are members of minorities.

Some black committee members say they are still troubled about Wilson's dismissal.

``It was totally unnecessary for us to be under this pressure,'' says John O'Bryant, a school committee member. ``Dr. Wilson offered to stay on until his contract ran out in June 1991. We could have been relaxed searching for somebody.''

Education experts say Boston's problems aren't unique, with many large urban school systems confronting the same issues.

``You've got political issues that transcend educational and economic issues,'' says Max McConkey, director of The Network, Inc., of Andover, Mass., a consulting firm for school systems. ``It's tough to exert leadership by committee.''

To help solve the school committee's problems, a strong superintendent with exceptional management skills is needed, Mr. McConkey says. Such a leader must be committed to solving the city's education problems and must be given enough power to do so without interference by other school committee members.

``Give that person absolutely ... as much liberty as possible to pursue [his] dreams and to truly attempt to make reform,'' McConkey says.

Boston's problem, he says, is that the current system doesn't allow the superintendent much independence to make changes. In order to attract good candidates, the city must first change the structure of the position and then advertise the position, not the other way around, McConkey says.

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