School chief’s plan reversals draw fire

Johnson’s efforts building frustration

FILE--Carol Johnson, superintendent of Boston schools FILE--Carol Johnson, superintendent of Boston schools (Barry Chin/ Globe staff)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / November 15, 2010

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Boston schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson proposed single-gender schools in fall 2008, but halted after learning that such public schools are illegal in Massachusetts.

Johnson sought a cost-saving change last year to how students are assigned schools, but withdrew it amid concerns that students in some poor neighborhoods could be largely restricted to low-achieving schools.

Then last month, Johnson pulled back her proposal to close some schools, after accusations the plan was based on faulty data.

The proposals are among several Johnson has pitched during her three-year tenure only to delay or revamp them because of public uproar, School Committee apprehension, or worries of litigation.

Johnson says the reversals are part of the natural give-and-take that comes with publicly vetting any proposal.

But the process can frustrate even her supporters, such as Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that works with the school system.

“I, like many, have been troubled by the start-and-stop feel of some of her initiatives,’’ Grogan said. “It causes confusion and it expends political capital she needs to move the system forward.’’ Still, he says he believes Johnson has the right vision for the district, “despite some notable stumbles.’’

As Governor Deval Patrick and President Obama push urban superintendents to rapidly turn around dismal results, the problematic proposals are raising concerns about Johnson’s ability to transform a city school system known for “pockets of success’’ into one offering many high-achieving schools.

Some elected officials, business leaders, and community activists said they yearn to see a more decisive Johnson present sharply honed proposals, then enthusiastically defend them.

When her proposals misfire, students, parents, and staff can be caught in the middle.

“If you are basing decisions on incorrect information, it shows a lack of integrity,’’ said Karen McInnis, co-chairwoman of the Family Council at Lee Academy Pilot School, where parents discovered last month that Johnson’s team overestimated the cost savings of merging their school with another by $800,000. “I’m frustrated and confused, and I’m rapidly losing any belief in the Boston public schools,’’ McInnis said.

In an interview, Johnson defended her handling of major proposals. While she said a lot of work goes into them, she also aims to address concerns raised by the School Committee or by affected students, families, and staff.

“We want to make sure our families have confidence in the work we are doing and they are aware we are listening to them,’’ Johnson said.

Johnson continues to enjoy the support of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appoints all seven voting members of the School Committee. He said Johnson usually runs major proposals by him and he sometimes suggests changes.

“It’s always easier to second-guess from the sidelines,’’ Menino said in an interview. “Sometimes when you are in a leadership position, you say, ‘Take it or leave it.’ That doesn’t work [in education]. She is looking for people to be part of the process.’’

Like the mayor, Johnson keeps a calendar packed with meetings and public appearances. Along the way, she often pulls out a small notebook to capture Bostonians’ comments and questions about proposals she is putting together.

Her accessibility has built tremendous good will for her across the city, and many supporters credit her for giving the public a chance to shape her proposals.

In introducing proposals, Johnson often includes a caveat that recommendations could change as the public and the School Committee weigh in, and often they do change.

Such reversals are a hallmark of Johnson’s administration, said Richard Stutman, the teachers union president.

“They are so tentative, the slightest flicker or breeze changes their mind,’’ Stutman said. “It’s a terrible and ineffective way to run a school system.’’

One of Johnson’s biggest problems came with her handling of Menino’s directive in 2008 to reduce busing costs by redrawing the city’s three sprawling student assignment zones — a system that allows, for instance, a student in South Boston to attend a school several miles away in Hyde Park.

The directive was sure to spark controversy because previous attempts to overhaul assignments had polarized a city still struggling to overcome the wounds of desegregation-era busing.

But instead of holding a series of public meetings to develop a proposal that might be palatable to parents and civil rights activists, Johnson quietly put together a plan to divide the city into five smaller geographic regions and then slipped the proposal into a budget presentation in February 2009, giving a brief overview.

Within three weeks, Johnson announced she would make changes to the proposal, acknowledging concerns that the plan may not provide equal access to quality schools for many poor students. A few months later, as public uproar intensified, Johnson scrapped a revamped proposal at the request of the School Committee.

Similarly, Johnson’s school-closing proposal last month appeared troubled from the start, as a shift in the underlying premise for the closings created much public confusion.

Earlier this year, Johnson had warned that a tough fiscal climate would likely prompt a significant number of school closings, but when she and her staff presented the proposal Oct. 6 they stressed it was about improving academic opportunities and not about saving money.

The proposal, which initially called for closing six schools and merging two others, was immediately panned from all sides. Fiscal watchdogs said an estimated $8 million in savings didn’t go far enough to remedy a potential $63 million shortfall next year, while affected students, parents, and staff said Johnson based decisions on testing data that was cherry-picked.

By the end of last month, Johnson revised the proposal, pulling back on one school closing and partially on the school mergers. Then this month, she withdrew the entire proposal, saying she would return to the School Committee on Dec. 8 with a larger set of recommendations to address the budget shortfall.

Johnson also ran into problems last year when she proposed stopping or limiting the payments for busing students to independently run public charter schools, which would have violated state law.

And the district’s failure to quickly remedy the civil rights violations of students not fluent in English and file adequate corrective-action plans with the state prompted an investigation by the US Justice and Education departments. The city and the federal agencies recently reached an agreement to avoid litigation.

City Councilor Charles Yancey, a Johnson supporter, said that Menino, who he believes is deeply involved with education issues behind the scenes, is noticeably absent when Johnson is fending off critics.

Yancey said that when he attended a recent community hearing in Hyde Park about the planned school closures, “the mayor was nowhere to be found and we were literally in his backyard. The question I raised was that none of these proposals will succeed without the support of the mayor.’’

Johnson has had some notable successes amid the toughest economic climate since the Great Depression. She has tackled the high school dropout problem, creating a special program in which students who are short on credits for graduation can quickly make up the work, helping the district’s graduation rate to climb.

“I think people mistake someone’s openness to a lack of leadership, but I don’t think that’s the case at all for Superintendent Johnson,’’ said City Councilor Maureen Feeney. “She is someone who always takes the time to listen.’’

Some proposals Johnson has tabled could resurface. She is expected to tackle student assignment again in January — Menino remains committed to overhauling the system to reduce busing costs — and a bill lingers on Beacon Hill that would allow for single-gender public schools.

Reflecting on her various proposals, Johnson said: “I think that it’s not so much we haven’t done a lot of work on the proposals we submit; we have. But not everyone agrees, and we won’t have total agreement on some of the tough choices we have to make.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at