Menino links proposed school system changes to potential economic growth

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino this morning delivered one of the best speeches of his political career, and it brought the crowd of several hundred at the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce breakfast to their feet in an enthusiastic ovation. In it, he laid out a compelling vision for a comprehensive overhaul of the Boston Public Schools. In the process, he said things that have needed to be said for a long time.

He strongly backed Superintendent Carol Johnson’s plan to close a $60 million budget gap and simultaneously improve the quality of education. There are 5600 empty seats in the city. The Boston School Committee tomorrow night will vote on Johnson’s proposal to close nine schools and merge eight into four, saving an estimated $20 million a year. But this isn’t just about bricks and mortar.

Menino’s and Johnson’s vision is that every classroom will have a highly skilled teacher whose salary, in part, will be tied to performance. He wants a teacher contract that will allow principals across the city hire the teachers whose skills best meet the needs of their students. He also wants to reform the teacher evaluation system. Noting that Boston has the shortest school day in the Commonwealth, he wants to extend the school day. Outdated contract rules will have to change.
And that’s not all that will outrage the unions. The school system’s health insurance has doubled in the last decade, meaning that one in eight dollars goes for employee health insurance. Millions could be saved by joining the Group Insurance Commission plan that covers state workers. Resistance to this reasonable change among municipal workers is virtually statewide. Menino will ask the legislature to approve a home rule petition that will enable Boston to make the change.
Boston’s 61 percent graduation rate is “one of the highest in urban America,” but, he said, we “can’t accept that more than a third don’t graduate.” He understands that quality education is the foundation of economic growth and prosperity, not to mention competitiveness.
I asked the Mayor how, in light of the need to enable principals to choose their own teachers, he is actually going to get agreement on modifying the bumping rule, where those teachers in closing schools could actually displace other, sometimes better teachers elsewhere solely because of seniority. He acknowledged the challenges presented in upcoming union talksAsked where the preliminary talks are, the Mayor said they’re still “in the on-deck circle.”
More than one observer mused that the strength of this speech and the force of its message could well signal that Tom Menino may not be planning to run for yet another term. He didn’t mince words, and he indicated a willingness to go head-to-head with the teachers union on issues where it has been largely intransigent. But, as he well noted, education is “the issue of our time,” and, even if he doesn’t get 100 percent of what he wants, he has definitely raised the bar on what is needed well into the future.
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