Boston school crisis: battleground for local politicians

Boston's public schools are closed for spring vacation -- and unless city politicians can agree among themselves, they may not open again until next fall.

When vacation ends on April 27, the school department will have run out of money, 38 days short of the 180 school days required by state law, and $30 million short of the $240 million needed for America's oldest public school system to complete its 348th year.

The possibility that the system's 64,000 urban students could be thrown out on the streets -- with few jobs during 4 1/2 months of warm weather -- has spurred late-night attempts to resolve a crisis which most observers recognize as political rather than financial.

At issue is a home-rule bill needing ultimate approval of the state legislature and Gov. Edward J. King. It would allow the city to borrow $75 million (part of which would fund the school deficit) and add several new taxes to help repay the loan.

Most observers believe the schools will reopen after the current vacation. But the major protagonists in the crisis -- the school commitee, the city council, and Mayor Kevin H. White -- have found the proposals and counterproposals for the bill so tangled that the entire issue may have to be unraveled by the courts.

Each group is determined to use the current difficulty, and the public anxeity it has generated, to force major changes in the city's political structures:

* The school committee, accused of irresponsibly overspending its $210 million appropriation, says Mayor White intentionally underfunded the schools last fall and should have foreseen the crisis.

* The mayor, refusing to bail out the schools unless he can place budgetary curbs on the semiautonomous school committee, has angered the city council with what they see as his own high-spending and imperious ways.

* The city council, long viewed as a powerless generator of rhetoric constantly at war with itself, is determined to trim the mayor's considerable powers in return for approval of the bill.

Even the state board of education has entered the fray. State Education Commissioner Gregory R. Anrig has asked Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Thomas R. Morse Jr. to order the city to fund the schools for the balance of the term.

Judge Morse has instead urged the sparring parties to reach a political compromise -- perhaps because, as some longtime court-watchers suggest, the state's constitution may not give him the authority to compel the schools to remain open.

If Morse does intervene, it will be the third time in recent years that the courts have stepped in when the city's political leaders were unable to unwind their snarls. The Boston Housing Authority is still in court receivership, and the desegregation plan for the public schools is under the direction of a federal district court judge.

Harvard Law School Prof. Charles M. Haar, appointed by Judge Morse to study the current crisis, divided the blame evenly among the various parties. He told Morse April 22 that "Fiscal irresponsibility remains a serious problem" in the school committee. Professor Haar also blamed the mayor for insisting on appointing a special administrator to run the schools, describing it as a fundamental shift from elected to appointed authority that was not necessary at this time. And he chastized the city council for cluttering the funding bill with amendments -- a provision allowing the mayor to be recalled at a special election, for example -- which, he said, were not "essential to the urgent school matters at hand."

Some observers describe the main issue, that the schools are out of money, as a red herring. Harry Durning, executive director of the business-supported Boston Municipal Research Bureau, says, "Our past research indicates that you can't described the schools as being bankrupt, because they're a division of the City Boston" -- which is still solvent.

Many see the mayor's refusal to fund the schools as a statement that other well-funded departments -- like the mayor's large and much-criticized public relations staff -- are more important.

But Commissioner Anrig, in a speech at the Kennedy Library April 21, blasted the school committee for "exorbitant" educational costs, as well as for political infighting which has led to seven different superintendents in the past 10 years.

If schools do stay closed, the Higher Education Consortium, a group of 28 colleges and universities in and around Boston, has offered help fill the gap with volunteers, teachers, and administrators from its own ranks. A group of museums and performing arts companies calling itself BEST (Boston Emergency School Termination) has also offered to provide programs for students.

Pressure for a solution is also coming from the financial community. Boston's bond rating has been suspended because of uncertainty over the effects of a recently approved statewide property-tax-cutting measure called Proposition 2 1/2.

The local financial community will need to convince the nation's bankers that the proposed $75 million bond issue is a worthwhile investment. John Gould, vice-president of the Shawmut Bank of Boston, told the Monitor that a bill which puts spending controls on the school committee and provides that "a revenue stream by very specifically dedicated" to repayment of the bondholders should help convince potential buyers.

Meanwhile, community feelings seem reflected in a statement signed by 34 Protestant and Roman Catholic clergy-men. It urges "our elected officials to behave like leaders rather tha n quarreling children."

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