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New school board head should assert independence

Michael D. O'Neill smiled after he was elected the new chairman of the Boston School Committee Monday. At right is Superintendent Carol Johnson and at left is committee member John Barros.

Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff

Michael D. O'Neill smiled after he was elected the new chairman of the Boston School Committee Monday. At right is Superintendent Carol Johnson and at left is committee member John Barros.

COLLEGIALITY MARKED the Rev. Gregory Groover’s four-year tenure as chairman of the Boston School Committee. But the challenges facing the city’s school system weren’t going to be solved by Groover’s kid-glove treatment of Superintendent Carol Johnson or his habit of allowing meetings to drag on for hours. What the system needs is an independent voice that presses the administration to confront setbacks and policy misfires. New chairman Michael O’Neill should resolve to provide that.

On Monday, the seven-member panel elected O’Neill, a business executive, as its head. His business acumen will be a plus as the school department tries to manage a potential $63 million shortfall. But still more crucial is providing oversight and accountability for the system, even when that means pushing back against Superintendent Johnson and Mayor Menino.

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In the 1990s, Bostonians took on the legislative and ballot challenge to eliminate the city’s 13-member elected school board. That meant a break with the corruption, patronage, and hijinks of past boards. Instead, the mayor was authorized to appoint members with expertise or interest in education policy to four-year terms. The appointed board, however, was never meant to become a mere rubber stamp for the school superintendent. The public wanted 100 percent integrity, not 100 percent compliance with the administration.

O’Neill should run the board in that spirit. One simple thing he could do right away would be to insist that school officials distribute information packets to the committee three days in advance of meetings — as called for in the school board’s bylaws. Now, school board members are sometimes called upon to make important decisions with little time to digest background reports, leaving them subject to manipulation.

It’s noteworthy that the two most independent-minded members of the school board — Mary Tamer and Meg Campbell — were passed over for the chairmanship and vice chairmanship. Both made waves last year by calling a special hearing to explore the potential for expanding K-8 schools in the city. Another area ripe for a hearing would be high school graduation rates, which aren’t as impressive as they appear given the high numbers of graduates who end up in remedial college courses. It’s a good sign that O’Neill supports such hearings and is eager to hear more voices from outside the education establishment.

The School Committee’s first big test under O’Neill will likely come in February, when the board considers a new student assignment policy that allows children to attend classes closer to their homes. There is some danger, however, that the plan that comes before the School Committee will only tinker with current boundaries. If so, the panel should demand better. And O’Neill should lead that charge.

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