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The Boston Globe

Opinion

scot lehigh

Must issues for Boston schools

IT’S MAKE-or-break time for the Boston public school system - and yet, both sides in the contract talks seem blind to the need for sweeping change.

Although it’s easy to get lost in the assertions, accusations, and recriminations of the negotiations, the overarching question is simple: Can the changes Boston families want and need occur within the confines of a negotiated agreement?

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After almost two years of negotiation, the answer, unfortunately, seems preordained. Consider: The very best that families hoping for a longer school day seem likely to get is an extra half hour of classroom time - and even that’s not a sure thing, since the two sides remain far apart when it comes to compensation.

“The whole thing is really discouraging,’’ says City Councilor John Connolly, who chairs the council’s education committee. “We are talking about trying to add a half an hour to a day that is well below the national average. A half an hour!’’

That’s obviously not much additional instruction, yet it’s all that the district is seeking. Mayor Tom Menino, meanwhile, has failed to wage a concerted public campaign in favor of even that dollop of extra teaching.

The teachers’ union has been true to form: stuck in the past and more preoccupied with the prerogatives of teachers than the needs of students.

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As for the Boston Teachers Union? It’s been true to form: stuck in the past and more preoccupied with the prerogatives of teachers than the needs of students. BTU teachers already earn some of the highest pay in the state for working one of the shortest urban-district days in the country. In these tough fiscal times, their expectations are jaw-droppingly unrealistic. BTU chief Richard Stutman didn’t return my call, but the union wants a 10 percent raise over three years, at a total four-fiscal-year cost of $116 million. And, atop that, pay at their $41-per-hour rate for any additional time, which would add another $20 million or so a year for the extra half hour.

The district has offered a 5 percent raise over four years, for about $33 million, without specific pay for the extra time. All of which is to say, a lot of choppy water separates the two sides.

On another issue considered a must - choosing teachers based on school needs rather than seniority - tentative language both sides have agreed on gives principals a good deal more say in staffing. Sam Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, calls it a worthwhile reform, even while noting it doesn’t go far as he’d like.

In other words, when a deal finally gets done, it’s likely to be a half step at best. Certainly the improvements would pale in comparison to the considerably longer day - and much greater hiring authority - that already characterizes charter public schools.

“The whole squabble over half an hour is almost beside the point at this late date, particularly when you have charter schools that offer two or three times that in extra instruction,’’ says Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation.

Charters will be an obvious point of comparison for the new contract. Two weeks ago, there were more than 10,000 applicants for about 1,200 Boston charter slots that will be available in the fall. Although that figure undoubtedly includes some families that applied to several charters, it still shows the deep interest in an alternative to the traditional schools. If the traditional system can’t or won’t respond appropriately itself, expect pressure to grow for change to be imposed from outside. After all, the last education reform bill, which raised the charter cap and gave managers enhanced authority to turn around chronically troubled schools, was in part a reaction to BTU intransigence on reform.

“It’s urgent that we accelerate the pace of change, and this contract is an important moment,’’ says Representative Marty Walz, Democrat of Boston and co-author of that law. “If there isn’t meaningful change, many will feel deeply discouraged and question whether the school system can be improved within a reasonable time period.’’

If so, expect pressure to grow to lift the charter cap again - or to eliminate it altogether.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com.

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