NATIONAL press reports last summer announcing a Boston University plan to take over and transform at no cost the ailing school system of Chelsea seemed almost too good to be true - and since November it appears that's what they were. The first-of-its-kind school takeover - designed by BU president John Silber to be a national model of the effectiveness of private management free of public red tape and bureaucracy - has been slowed by a series of legal and constitutional snarls.
At issue is not just the basic accountability and responsibility of private management taking charge of a public trust - but how it is handled. The project now seems a model of the hidden complexities of school reform.
Chelsea, an immigrant, working-class community of 26,000 north of Boston, was never part of the Massachusetts economic ``miracle.'' Its schools are rife with drugs and unwed mothers.
Over 10 years BU promises to raise $20 million to pay for reforms that its School of Education will manage. These include higher teacher salaries; a preschool program for the care, nutrition, and education of all toddlers; and adult literacy classes to help parents from non-English backgrounds. (About 70 percent are Hispanic or Southeast Asian.)
In five years BU promises to raise the scores of Chelsea third-graders 20 percent. Attendance will top 90 percent. The dropout rate - at 52 percent the worst in the state - will drop to 35 percent.
To do this, BU wants to merge the typically separate spheres of policymaking and administration. Usually school boards set policy and superintendents administer it. The idea may make for more-efficient decisions, but public business cannot easily be conducted that way, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and others contend.
BU expected its plan to breeze through in November. But questions from AFT, the Massachusetts Department of Education, Chelsea taxpayers, and the warning of a state Superior Court judge sent BU lawyers scurrying to come up with a new contract.
BU had asked to be exempted from open-meeting and open-records laws, as well as from waste and fraud audits by the state - to protect its own right to privacy, BU lawyer Michael Rosen said later. BU has now backed away from these requests, Mr. Rosen says.
But the main sticking point is ``indemnification.'' Say a BU manager skims $10,000 off the top of his or her budget: Is BU responsible? Or a black teacher is not rehired: Can BU be sued on a civil rights charge?
A new revised contract will have to handle these and other issues more explicitly. Unfortunately, a counterproductive dynamic has also developed because of ``an arrogant attitude'' and ``shifting promises'' on the part of Dr. Silber and BU officials, says a highly placed state official who nonetheless thinks the plan will go through. The new contract will reportedly be ready in March.
``I believe in the tooth fairy, but I won't believe BU anymore,'' says Elizabeth McBride, who chairs the Chelsea school committee. ``If the first proposal had gone through, which I was pressured to sign, we'd be up the creek. I want to see things in writing, that's all. If it's cleared up, I'll vote for it. I want to help kids.''
Silber, who de-unionized BU, blames the AFT for the delay.
``The AFT is very nervous that if this plan works, other places may try it,'' says Peter Greer, BU's dean of education. ``They may lose their power as a union if kids start doing better.''
AFT official Bellah Rosenberg says the union is in a tough position. ``It's hard to talk principle when you've got schools that haven't been doing their job. But in a democratic society you don't just throw away all the rules in trying to fix things.''
One state official questioned the ability of the BU school of education (only 45 new students last year) to handle the job.
Others question how eager foundations will be to hand BU $20 million. One December fund-raising plan failed.
Meanwhile, citizens such as Charles Quigley, editor of the Chelsea Record who helped originate the plan, wonder about the sudden hue and cry: ``Where was the state, where was the AFT two years ago? Who cared about Chelsea then? I'll tell you - nobody.''