The Rev. Gregory Groover has decided not to seek reelection as chairman of the Boston School Committee, after four years of guiding the committee through a period of sweeping school overhauls and tight finances that led to a number of school closings.
The committee, which is appointed by Mayor Thomas M. Menino, is scheduled to elect a new chairman at its organizational meeting Monday night.
Groover said in an interview Thursday that he felt it was time for someone else to take the leadership position, emphasizing that it was always his intention to serve in the role for just a few years. He is also pastor of Charles Street African Methodist Episcopal Church, which is struggling to emerge from bankruptcy, and he said he wanted to devote more time to bringing the church to its “next level of growth.”
Leading the board “has been a rewarding and extremely rich experience,” Groover said. “I hope that in some small way I helped move the needle in education.”
Groover, who is halfway through his second four-year term on the committee, will continue as a member.
Groover’s successor is widely considered to be Michael O’Neill, the vice chairman who was sworn in Friday night by Menino for a second four-year term on the School Committee.
As the senior vice president of marketing and distribution at SBLI of Massachusetts, a life insurance company, O’Neill, 52, brings a business executive’s perspective to the committee, often raising questions about the costs of proposals and drilling down on the details.
O’Neill, a Charlestown resident, is passionate about preventing students from dropping out of high school and is chairman of the Youth Council at the Boston Private Industry Council, a public-private partnership that focuses on education and workforce issues.
O’Neill could not be reached for comment over the weekend. Groover said, “I think he would make an extraordinary chair.”
The change in leadership comes at a critical juncture for the state’s largest school district, which serves 57,000 students.
Over the next few months, the School Committee is expected to approve a new system for assigning students to schools that allows more of them to attend schools close to their homes, representing the biggest change in student assignment in more than two decades.
In a city where wounds still linger from the divisive battles to desegregate schools in the 1970s, public debate could turn volatile and thwart any proposals for change, which has occurred with previous proposals.
Public emotions also could run high as the committee weighs and eventually votes on Superintendent Carol R. Johnson’s budget recommendation for the next school year that could include some cuts to remedy a potential $63 million shortfall. Johnson is expected to present her proposed budget next month.
A change in the chairmanship could bring new energy and ideas to the committee as it tackles these issues, said Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a watchdog group funded by nonprofit groups and businesses.
“It is healthful after a period of time to have a change in leadership,” Tyler said.
Johnson said on Saturday that she appreciated Groover’s leadership and noted that he was instrumental in hiring her in 2007.
“He has been extremely supportive of my leadership during my tenure here and helped me connect with the larger community,” Johnson said.
She praised Groover for being a champion of students by insisting, as he weighed proposals on the School Committee, that they all have equitable access to quality schools and programs.
Under Groover’s tenure as chairman, the committee evolved into a more talkative group, as he encouraged every member to speak after presentations.
Meetings, which had run on a tight two-hour schedule under his predecessor, Elizabeth Reilinger, often ran three or four hours long, and were marked by delayed votes as members sought more information from the School Department on its proposals.
“I have seen this committee become a remarkable deliberative body,” said Groover, who was originally appointed to the board in 2007. “When I first came on, there was not much give or take. . . . I always have seen it as an appropriate role for the chair to really create an atmosphere for other School Committee members to weigh in and debate.”
Groover also placed an emphasis on hearing from parents, students, and other interested parties and would frequently request the scheduling of community meetings or hearings. The gatherings were quite lively at times, even teetering on the verge of unruly during heated debate on school closings in the fall of 2010 and at some budget hearings.
Consequently, the School Committee, after much debate, implemented new rules last year for public participation at its meetings; for instance, attendees may hold signs as long as they do not block the view of others.
All the while, Groover has increasingly found himself tending to the messy bankruptcy protection proceedings for the Charles Street A.M.E. Church that sparked a public battle between two prominent black institutions.
The church is trying to reorganize nearly $5 million in loans it owes to OneUnited Bank, after the bank threatened to auction off the historic church last February, prompting protests from the community. Groover said the dispute “was not the driving reason” for him stepping down as School Committee chairman.
The church’s financial predicament did not seem to raise eyebrows in the School Committee chamber, where the board routinely makes spending decisions and oversees an annual school budget of more than $850 million.
In addition to devoting more time to his church, Groover said he wants to “dive deeper” into his neighborhood of Grove Hall and assist with efforts to turn around schools there.
And he intends to be an active School Committee member, he said.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Groover said. “I’m still around.”