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LAWRENCE HARMON

Carol Johnson on shaky ground after missteps

These are down days for Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson and her top staffers at school headquarters on Court Street. Many of the superintendent’s initiatives are met with outright skepticism on the part of parents and the public. And she received an unimpressive grade — the equivalent of a C — on her latest job performance evaluation from the School Committee.

The operations function of the school department has grown progressively weaker during Johnson’s five-year watch. She understands urban education and knows what needs to be done to improve the schools. But she and her team stumble during the implementation stage.

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Good planning based on timely, accurate data is not a hallmark of her administration. Estimates for school renovations arrive without basic construction costs, such as architectural fees. The system is still trying to regain trust after prolonged delays along poorly planned bus routes marred the beginning of the school year. And poor inventory control has been linked to the discovery of cases of expired food in school lunchrooms.

Local and state officials are watching carefully. The state School Building Authority, which pays for a portion of school renovations in cities and towns, has stopped reimbursing Boston for the $40 million renovation of Hyde Park High School because of a violation of state funding rules. The City Council just passed an $18.5 million loan order for the renovation, relocation, or enlargement of several high-performing schools. But not before councilors scolded school officials for submitting an earlier funding request that was nearly double what they had expected.

Johnson and her top aides appear flustered at times, including last month when they tripped over questions posed by a high-powered advisory committee convened by Mayor Menino to recommend a new student assignment policy for the 56,000-student system. They were saved by the bell — literally — when a fire alarm required everyone to clear the meeting room at English High School.

Johnson has made personnel changes recently in top slots in transportation, food service, and facilities. But it’s too early to tell if her new managers can turn things around.

This is the worst possible time for administrative pratfalls. The city appears ready at long last to implement a neighborhood-based school assignment plan and end the vestiges of the 1970s busing era. But to do that, Menino’s advisory committee requires detailed statistical information on current school programs, testing results, projected enrollment, patterns of school choice, transportation costs per student, and much more in the way of academic and logistical data. Johnson and her team must deliver data in a usable format starting next month if the advisory committee hopes to evaluate alternate plans and make a recommendation by the January deadline.

This is the worst possible time for administrative pratfalls.

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Johnson also has a lot to prove to parents who disagree with some of her recent decisions around school closings and consolidations. Parents in Roxbury’s Mission Hill section are beyond furious that Johnson will be uprooting a popular K-8 school in the neighborhood to make way for a citywide high school. They say it sends a terrible signal when the superintendent is trying to convince parents that there will be high-quality elementary and middle schools available in every neighborhood.

To its credit, the school department has hosted more than 20 neighborhood meetings on what parents want from a new school assignment plan. But many have been sparsely attended. And the department has not made good use of a $240,000 federal grant received in 2009 to draw more parents into the effort.

Parents flocked to several powerful public meetings this week at City Hall where they described their problems with the current school assignment system and their hopes for the future. But pointedly, the meeting was organized and chaired by at-large City Councilor John Connolly, not the school system.

Johnson should prepare to face tough questions in the months ahead, especially from the more vocal members of the School Committee, including Mary Tamer and Meg Campbell. Tamer, for example, wants to know the rationale for offering a nine-hour school day to about 1,000 kindergartners and first graders at the city’s six early learning centers when thousands of other children in those grades across the city attend school for only six hours.

Last year, Johnson received a contract extension until 2015. That will feel like an eternity unless she gets her administrative house in order.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.
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