Court-run Boston schools now must find new superintendent

One of the most challenging jobs in American public education -- leadership of the Boston school system -- suddenly is surrounded with uncertainty. The decision of Superintendent Robert Spillane to leave the city this summer to become head of the Fairfax County, Va., school system comes at a time when the end of federal court involvement in running the Boston public schools is in sight.

While Dr. Spillane's departure July 1 is unlikely to change US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity's determination to end his oversight of the school system, his planned withdrawal at the end of the school year might be delayed.

The relationship between the judge and the Boston superintendent has been complex and sometimes strained since Spillane took over the leadership of the city system in August 1981, but it is generally agreed that the two worked together quite well.

How long what amounts to a court guardianship of Boston schools continues could depend on the choice of the next superintendent and the measure of that individual's commitment to implementation of pending moves in the desegregation process.

Superintendent Spillane's job was complicated by the fact that he was answerable to two authorities -- a judge bent on achieving racially balanced schools throughout the city and a school board (``committee'' in Boston) in the midst of political upheaval.

Spillane had to adjust to the switchover 14 months ago from a five-member school committee elected citywide to a 13-member panel, nine elected from neighborhoods and four chosen at-large.

Through all this, Spillane managed to impart increased stability to the school system. Most close to the Boston school scene, like school committee president Joseph Nucci, give him high marks for his performance and seem sorry to see him depart.

Spillane, whose salary was increased from $60,000 to $70,000 last year, had strong school committee support for most of his proposals. Opposition, when it surfaced, generally came from members representing districts, like South Boston, where resistance to forced busing has been strong.

Prior to Spillane's arrival from New York, where he was deputy state commissioner of education, the Boston school system had been in turmoil with three superintendents and two acting superintendents in seven years.

Current sentiment within the school committee appears to favor picking a new superintendent from candidates in the Boston area. Several school committee members have indicated support for deputy superintendent Joseph McDonough, who was serving as acting head of the system when Spillane was chosen.

The departing superintendent himself has suggested that a committee made up of community leaders, parents, and representatives of the business community be appointed to search for his successor. He also says that the $70,000 cap on the superintendent's salary, a factor that apparently influenced his decision to leave, will make it difficult for Boston to attract well-qualified candidates from outside of Massachusetts.

In the city's black community, support already is building for Dr. Robert Peterkin, a black who is superintendent of schools in neighboring Cambridge. He formerly was employed in the Boston school system.

Proponents of a black superintendent contend such a selection makes particular sense because more than 70 percent of the system's pupils are nonwhite. Since the early 1970s and the filing of the desegregation suit that led to Judge Garrity's first racial-balancing directive, the percentage of black students in Boston public schools has more than doubled. They now make up 48 percent of total enrollment, with whites at 28 percent and Hispanics, Orientals, and others comprising 24 percent.

A decade ago whites outnumbered blacks by 42 to 41 percent in the city's public school population. But with the advent of the desegregation plan, and forced busing, many white families moved out of the city or transferred their children to privates and parochial schools. Total public school enrollment has declined from nearly 83,000 to 55,000 since 1977, and 200 public schools have been closed in the city.

While not abandoning their commitment to improving -- in part through busing -- educational opportunities for all pupils, regardless of their race or where in the city they live, Judge Garrity and other supporters of desegregation concede that prospects for eventual racial balance in the schools are slim.

The judge has been under increasing pressure, from Superintendent Spillane and others, to discontinue his role in Boston system and turn the running of school affairs back to local officials.

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