The icing on Boston's 350th-birthday cake has begun to melt in the heat of controversy: the surprise firing of Superintendent of Schools Robert C. Wood 12 days before the opening of the fall term, a fight between the school board and Mayor Kevin H. White over the budget, a strike threat by teachers, and racial unrest linked to the fatal shooting of a black youth in a struggle with a city policeman.
The 1980-81 school year was to showcase a turnaround for the Boston public school system -- at its worst in 1974-75 when US District Judge W. Arthur Garrity took control of the schools and directed a desegration plan featuring extensive busing of pupils. By the close of the 1979-80 school year Judge Garrity had suggested that he would withdraw from control of the schools by December, 1980, praising desegregation progress made under Dr. Wood, one-time US secretary of Housing and Urban Development (1969) and president of the University of Massachusetts from 1970 to 1977.
But with schools opening Sept. 3 for Boston's 65,000 pupils, Wood was abruptly fired Aug. 21 ona 3-to-1 vote of the five- member school committee (the board's one black member abstained in protest).
Though Mayor White is insisting that the school system must not exceed last year's budget, the teachers' union threatens to strike if there is not sufficient new funding in the budget to cover wage hikes it seeks in current contract talks.
Meanwhile, reports of sporadic racial incidents continue to mount in various sections of the city. Black community dissatisfaction with the decision of a grand jury not to indict a white policeman in the shooting of 14-year-old Levi Hart is the most evident cause. The US Justice Department is looking into the case in which the black teen-ager was killed after a stolen-car chase.
Mayor White's key remedy for resolving racial issues, a strong Boston Commission Against Discrimination (BCAD), may never come into being. He has vetoed a watered-down version approved by the City Council.
The 1980-81 school year was to epitomize public education in Boston at its progressive best. The price of Dr. Wood's achievements during his two years in office was to be the opening of a $37 million occupational resource center, a vocational education showpiece for producing job-ready high- school graduates prepared to step into entry-level employment.
Highly touted nationally as one of the most attractive cities in the United States, the "Cradle of Liberty" today features a good deal of government by court decree. In addition to the school system, city agencies affected by court orders include public housing (in court receivership); public works, police, and fire departments (required by the courts to hire more minorities), and City Hall (ordered by Judge Garrity to rebuild its jail facilities).
And a preliminary US Census report indicates that Boston may have suffered a 20 percent loss in population since 1970, in spite of the movement of some suburban whites back to "gentrified" former slums in the city.
one question being asked after the Wood firing is whether the school system will return to the "old days" of patronage and rubber stamp superintendents -- or even resegregation.
Paul A. Kennedy, a veteran of 30 years in the system, was appointed Aug. 22 as acting superintendent for six months -- but not before a bitter exchange between John McDonough, president of the school committee and one of two "progressives" remaining on the assumes office, Boston faces these issues:
* Public school leadership is questioned at a time when racial tensions within the city may spin off into the schools, especially in trouble spots of the past -- South Boston, Charlestown, East Boston, and Hyde Park high schools.
* Parents are concerned for the safety of their children in schools. The system is without a director of security and has not completed security negotiations with the police. Also, busing assignments and schedules have not been sent out.
* Distribution of inflammatory leaflets throughout the city has increased. The latest victim of a continuing paper warfare is City Councilor Raymond Flynn of South Boston, first elected to public office beceause of his antibusing stand. Many of his ardent supporters are denouncing him for voting for the weak BCAD. During the summer, antiblack summer pamphlets have been attributed to the Ku Klux Klan, American Nazis, and similar groups.
* Mass meetings in the black community are being harangued by activists who claim that "violence" is the way to influence mainstream society. Voices seeking negotiation are attracting less attention.