Local leaders weigh current events

By Michael Levenson / State House News Service
Thursday, May 13, 2004

City and town officials discussed racial segregation in the schools, education funding and local budgets with the Romney administration Tuesday, occasionally expressing sharp differences with the Corner Office.

The Local Government Advisory Council, a panel of city and town officials that meets monthly with Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, covered a range of topics in a one-hour meeting.

Jeff Wulfson, an associate commissioner of education, briefed the group on the recent Suffolk Superior Court case, in which Judge Margot Botsford found the state is not meeting its constitutional duty to provide an equitably financed education to all students.

Wulfson said the full impact of the case, Hancock v. Driscoll, will not be known until it is decided by the full Supreme Judicial Court, likely in the fall. The SJC could then take months to rule in the case, meaning any new court-ordered funding might take more than a year to reach school districts, he said.

Charles Lyons, an Arlington selectman, said policymakers should look at issues besides school funding. He urged officials to "take a step back" and consider recent studies by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, which showed increased racial stratification in the schools.

Lyons said policymakers should begin to tackle disparate housing, transportation and employment opportunities for minorities. "It simply can't be reduced to funding and accountability," he said.

Paul Schlichtman, an Arlington School Committee member, pressed the panel and the Romney administration to support the METCO voluntary school-busing program, which he called the "one effective program" for integrating schools.

Healey did not address METCO, but said the Romney administration is concerned about achievement gaps between white and minority students.

She distributed to the council a report prepared by a commission led by Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan that pointed to several management changes schools can make to help improve performance. She said the recommendations offered a nonpartisan, non-budgetary repose to help struggling schools.

Healey also addressed concerns about a recent request by the administration that cities and towns begin cutting their local costs by reining in worker contracts and negotiated benefits.

She said the proposed municipal impact statements are intended as a "guide" and a "tool" to help cities and towns calculate how much of their increasing costs are due to personnel and benefits.

"It was not meant as a shot across the bow," Healey said.

But Clare Higgins, mayor of Northampton, challenged Healey, saying the administration should focus on rising health-care costs and burdensome civil service restrictions.

"This is not helpful," she said of the municipal impact statements.

Healey agreed that the administration would like to help cut civil service rules and has proposed abolishing he system for all workers except firefighters and police.