School Take-Over or Partnership
Immigrant community is riled as Boston's big University rides in to rescue bankrupt city's schools
IT was a great day for Chelsea.Skip to next paragraph
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A mound of dirt stretched out in front of a platform groaning with dignitaries, each waiting to heft a symbolic shovel or to be photographed with a commemorative plaque marking groundbreaking for seven new school buildings, the first schools to be built in the city since 1909.
Although state funds had been available since World War II to help communities build schools, Chelsea's Board of Aldermen had never asked for them. Chelsea was the only one of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns that had not.
It should have been a great day for Boston University President John Silber, the keynote speaker at the June 26 groundbreaking ceremony. His university accepted a call to manage the failing school system five years ago. Since then, it had raised $4.6 million to support Chelsea schools, increased teachers' salaries 29 percent, reduced the high school dropout rate 60 percent, ensured that 80 percent of the city's three- and four-year-olds had access to early childhood education, and now celebrated the end of a 40-year struggle in the city to build new schools.
And yet, the BU president spent the heart of his speech answering the criticism that won't go away: that Boston University can't talk to Hispanics.
The dispute between BU and the independent Commission on Hispanic Affairs plays out in news reports as a disconnect between BU and the Hispanic community of Chelsea, as a clash of personalities, political styles, or ideologies.
There is a partial truth in each of these explanations. But the roots of this conflict run deeper and touch what it means to bring voices that have been silent into the political life of a community.
Hours after BU signed its contract to manage city schools in 1989, the commission sued to challenge the constitutionality of the agreement. It also appealed to then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis (D) to establish an oversight panel to monitor the openness of decisionmaking and public access in the BU/Chelsea partnership. A request to the state Board of Education for mediation is pending.
``This wasn't a partnership, it was a takeover,'' insists commission member Angel (Tito) Rosa. ``They haven't taken the time to get good input from parents.''
BU officials reject the charge that they have failed to consult or to listen. ``The issues here are not complicated,'' says Doug Sears, chairman of the Boston University Management Team for Chelsea. ``Boston University has, in essence, been criticized for failing to find common ground with a private advocacy group that has made clear its goal of driving the university from Chelsea.''
Five days before the groundbreaking, the state-mandated Chelsea Oversight Panel reported to the Board of Education that BU had failed to ``include all elements of the community as partners in the endeavor.'' Panel chairman Irwin Blumer repeated a charge he made in a June 16 article in Education Week: ``From the first year, one of the major problems has been the BU Management Team's problem in talking with people of color, people who are poor, and people who don't speak English as a first language.''
Prime example: relations between BU and the Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs ``seem to be at an all-time low,'' the report said.
BU President Silber was out of town when the state board heard these charges, but they clearly influenced his speech. After thanking politicians, officials, and committees, Silber segued into Spanish to talk directly to what he termed ``one of the most important sectors of the Chelsea community, one to whom we have listened with care and whose concerns are foremost in our minds - the mothers and fathers of the children whose native language is not English, and especially to the Hispanic parents.'' He had rehearsed this part of the speech all week. Today was his best reading.