Boston schools need imaginative superintendent unhobbled by politics

In naming a search committee to find a new superintendent, the Boston School Committee has commissioned an unwieldy regiment to do a job which could be better handled by a well-organized platoon. And it has virtually guaranteed that politics will play a large part in the selection process. Everybody wants to get in on the act, or so it seems, when it comes to finding a new superintendent of schools for Boston.

The search committee, which could well spend almost as much time fitting meetings into the schedules of various members as on the selection process itself, is a 28-member smorgasbord of hand-picked or self-chosen representatives of interest groups.

While the special panel charged with coming up with a successor to current school superintendent Robert R. Spillane is hardly the largest of its type, even in Boston, where greatest emphasis all too often is on quantity rather than quality, there can be little doubt it is too big.

Certainly a better, and less cumbersome, arrangement might have been to have a search committee of perhaps less than a dozen, made up only those with sufficent time and dedication to get the job done, and done well, within the next few weeks.

This is not to suggest that speed should be the only, or even primary, consideration. But it makes a lot of sense, if at all possible, to have the next head of the school system on hand by July 1 when Dr. Spillane departs for his new post as head of the Fairfax County, Va., school system.

That would, if nothing else, help ensure a smooth transition from the present Hub school chief to his successor -- something particularly desirable at a time when federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity is preparing to end his long and intense involvement in reshaping the Boston school system.

Besides the challenges of a declining citywide public school enrollment -- with blacks, Hispanics, and other members of minorities increasingly outnumbering white pupils -- Spillane has had to adjust to an enlarged and restructured school committee bent on a larger role in school department operations.

Despite all this he has persevered, and to suggest the school system is no better than it was when he arrived on the scene in late summer 1981 would be a mistake.

Clearly, it was not an easy job for Spillane, and it may be no easier for the next superintendent.

Public education in Boston has for too long been a stepchild of the political ambitions of certain school committee members. Those who think otherwise are at best naive.

Ideally, the next superintendent would be given sufficient authority to direct the day-to-day operations of the city's schools without that all-too-familiar dabbling in personnel and other matters by school committee members, as well intentioned as they may be.

Contributing perhaps substantially to the attractiveness of the post for the Spillane successor could be the five-year term he or she may be given, if proposed special legislation supported by Mayor Raymond L. Flynn is enacted.

In its absence the next superintendent chosen can be sure of only one year on the job, hardly long enough to get much done and, thus, providing little appeal to a topnotch professional administrator.

What Boston schools least need is somebody who may be little more than a seat-warmer directing the school system in a politically charged atmosphere during a school-committee election year.

Certainly what is needed both in the coming months and those that follow is a proven, take-charge-type leader with sufficient authority to ensure quality public education for Boston's children. From the outset, whoever is chosen must have a commitment, on paper, to do the job without interference from school committee members and teacher unions, or others.

No school department head should have to play patronage games -- hiring, transferring, or promoting people to please anyone, no matter how powerful such patronage sponsors might be.

Although higher pay almost certainly was a major consideration in the Spillane decision to seek a superintendency elsewhere, had he been allowed greater freedom to run the school system here, he just might have thought twice before leaving the Hub.

The next Boston superintendent will be the seventh to hold that post in the past 13 years. That is too much change. Of the three full-time Spillane predecessors since 1972, two were dismissed upon completion of their three-year contracts.

A third, former University of Massachusetts president Robert Wood, was fired after the second year of his term.

This record of movement in and out of the superintendent's chair has hardly enhanced the attractiveness of the $70,000-a-year post. Even were the compensation level to be raised further, as is now under study by a subcommittee of the research team, more than a few highly qualified potential applicants might shy away from looking in this direction.

At the same time, however, the panel should have little difficulty coming up with several good prospects, including some with experience in running a fairly large urban school system, including large numbers of pupils from poor and minority families. That would seem to be an all but essential qualification for the next Boston school chief. Thus, as in the process which led to the choice of Spillane three years ago, expanding the talent search nationwide has particular merit.

While there might well be several would-be superintendents within the Boston school department, including those with friends on the search committee, special consideration should be given to whether any of them have the depth or breadth of experience for the post.

Ideally the person selected should be the unanimous or at least near-solid favorite of the 28-member panel chaired by school committeewoman Shirley Owens Hicks and including seven of her 12 school board colleagues.

An election year is not the best time for the school committee to be deciding on the superintendency and, in effect, the future direction of public education in the city. The ballot fates of more than a few of the nine district and four at-large Boston school board members could hinge on the caliber of the man or woman selected to replace Spillane.

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