Boston case tests state power to set length of school year

Can state laws requiring that public schools operate a minimum number of days each year withstand court challenge? That question is about to be addressed in Massachusetts courts.

The testing ground is the City of Boston, where public schools enrolling 64, 500 students are threatened with closing as early as MArch 30 because the school department is running out of money.

In a suit filed March 24 by the state Board of Education, Attorney General Francis X. Bellotti asked the Suffolk County Superior Court to issue a preliminary injunction to prevent a shutdown of the school system.

The Boston school finance situation is similar to one that hit several Ohio cities in 1978. At that time, several cities, including Cleveland, were running out of funds -- but the Legislature established a state loan fund to help districts in distress.

In Michigan, when school districts run out of funds, they are permitted to take a public vote to raise needed finances. Last year, 37 school districts were threatened with closings, but voters approved the needed taxes to keep schools open.

Massachusetts offers no financial buffer for districts under fiscal strain.

"Boston's children are entitled to a full school year the same as children throughout the commonwealth," said Anne McHugh, chairman of the state board. "We had hoped an agreement could be reached between the Boston School Committee and Mayor Kevin H. white . . . but time has run out."

Mayor White has authorized a $210 million budget for city public schools in the educational year ending this June, but the department is spending at a rate of $240 million. The city treasurer says the school fund may run out of money by March 30.

In the Boston suit, the state asks the school committee, mayor, and city council to present a plan for keeping schools open for all 180 days or to state "their inability to agree upon such a plan."

White, who sets the school budget, has committed no city funds to mak e up the apparent deficit.

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