Menino proposes more changes to struggling schools

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, just three months after long and contentious teacher contract negotiations ended, said Thursday he is seeking to change state law so school districts can accelerate efforts to overhaul low-achieving schools with fewer roadblocks from teacher unions.

One of Menino’s most far-reaching proposals would build upon the turnaround successes taking place at many state-designated underperforming schools in Boston and other cities. Superintendents in those cities gained the ability to bypass teacher contract rules under a nearly three-year-old state law so they can more quickly replace teachers, extend the school day, and make other changes.

Under Menino’s proposals, superintendents would have those same kind of powers to undertake similar changes at other schools on the cusp of being declared underperforming by the state, a move that could affect dozens of schools in Boston, instead of just the current 12.

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Another proposal would abolish a state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools that districts can operate in the state. These schools operate under fewer union contract rules.

“We have great schools in our city, and we need to make all the schools the same quality,” Menino said in a telephone interview minutes before he attended a physical therapy session at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.

He noted that the city tried negotiating some parts of his proposals, such as extending the school day, with the union but failed.

The plans drew harsh criticism from Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

“It’s regrettable that the mayor would seek to circumvent the collective bargaining process after both sides celebrated the beginning of a new contract that both sides were happy with,” Stutman said. “It is further regrettable that the mayor doesn’t appear to have the same confidence in the school system to continue on its current path as most of us do who work in the schools.”

The proposals are part of the mayor’s annual package of state legislation that lawmakers file on his behalf. This year, that package focuses strongly on education. Other proposals would allow for single-gender schools and usher in changes at independently run charter schools, such as restricting busing to within a certain geographic region around those schools instead of citywide.

The mayor and Superintendent Carol R. Johnson have been facing pressure to bolster the quality of schools over the last few months from many parents and activists, who worry that plans to overhaul the way students are assigned to schools would leave families with fewer quality choices.

“I think it’s good [Menino] is making an attempt to move toward more quality schools, but I’m not sure those are the measures that will ensure high quality across neighborhoods,” said Megan Wolf, a Jamaica Plain mother and member of QUEST, a grass-roots group pushing for more quality schools.

Wolf also wondered how the measures could be paid for as Governor Deval Patrick contemplates emergency cuts to balance the state’s budget.

The mayor’s push to extend a superintendent’s flexibility in overhauling low-achieving schools that have not yet been designated underperforming by the state is expected to gain considerable traction in the Legislature. The Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents is already working on a similar bill, which should be filed in the coming weeks.

“If these schools are not making rapid progress, we shouldn’t wait until the worst-case scenario,” said Tom Scott, the association’s executive director.

State Representative Martha Walz, a Boston Democrat, has been putting together her own bill on the same issue and is also working some of Menino’s proposals.

“These schools are on the brink of becoming underperforming,” Walz said. “It makes sense to intervene earlier.”

Menino’s proposal would not completely eliminate union negotiations from implementing changes under the three-year-old law he is seeking to expand to more schools. But that law limits talks to just a few months and any stalemate could ultimately get decided by the state’s education commissioner.

The interventions are not a rock-solid recipe for success. While Boston has boosted test scores at many underperforming schools, efforts have faltered at a few others, most notably the English High School in Jamaica Plain.

A federal grant program that has been sending millions of dollars to underperforming schools nationwide—critical in paying for extended days—also is expiring, raising questions about how overhaul efforts can be sustained and expanded.

But Johnson said the stakes are too high not to find a way to intervene. The changes, she said, could benefit about 24,000 additional students in Boston.

“We are hoping this legislative agenda will move us forward in addressing quality,” Johnson said.