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Globe Editorial

Boston schools chief must offer a good plan — then stick by it

December 1, 2010

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BOSTON SCHOOL Superintendent Carol Johnson needs to put forward a bold plan this week to right the city’s school system. And then she needs to defend it as if the futures of 56,000 students — and her job — depend on it. Johnson’s tendency to deal with problems in fits and starts can’t work in a system continually struggling with budget deficits and hard-to-educate students.

A recent Globe article outlined Johnson’s on-again, off-again management style. Last year, she advanced a money-saving school assignment plan only to pull it back at the last minute. Despite 5,600 vacant seats in 135 schools, she has been tentative about closing and consolidating buildings, sometimes changing direction when pushed by angry parents. Even her innovative proposals, such as single-sex schools, end up flying in the face of state law.

Johnson is an experienced urban superintendent. Yet she sometimes appears intimidated or perplexed by Boston’s brand of boisterous politics. She has a deep understanding of pedagogical, labor, and budget issues. Yet she too often acts in a constrained manner. The city needs her to be a stronger leader if the school system is to eradicate both a potential $63 million budget shortfall next year and a stubborn achievement gap between Boston students and their counterparts in suburban systems and charter schools.

In a Nov. 17 speech to the school committee, Johnson telegraphed that the days of backing down or waiting for bailouts from City Hall are coming to an end. That statement will be tested on Thursday when she presents the school committee with her latest plan.

In addition to school building overcapacity, Johnson’s plan will address runaway transportation costs and labor contracts that don’t serve the best interests of the city’s students. Progress, for example, will be slow until the city’s teachers’ union agrees to a stricter teacher evaluation process and an extended school day.

Johnson will also announce several more school closings in addition to the handful she announced this fall. But this time, said Johnson, she will offer clear criteria for her decision. She also intends to explain to parents and students what they should gain from her plan, not just what they will lose. There may be fewer schools for example, but that should create a chance to offer a wider range of student services, including bilingual and special education, under one roof.

Until now, Mayor Menino has left Johnson on her own to face angry constituencies. It’s to his credit that he doesn’t micromanage the schools. But the long-serving mayor, who still enjoys high favorability ratings, needs to play a larger role in explaining why the system must operate in leaner fashion. If Johnson’s plan truly addresses the flaws of the system — too many schools and inconsistent instruction — the public should come around eventually.