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Lawrence Harmon

A search that doesn’t need Menino

Mayor Menino belongs as far away as humanly possible from the search for a new superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. Yet there are signs that the relentlessly hands-on mayor might try to appoint someone to the post before he breaks camp in January.

Dot Joyce, the spokeswoman for Menino, is cryptic on the subject. Mainly, Menino wants to see a smooth process underway to replace departing school superintendent Carol Johnson, she said. But does the mayor rule out pushing through her replacement? “We don’t know what we don’t know,’’ Joyce said — twice. Martha Pierce, Menino’s education adviser, provided a bit more light on the subject. She said the door remains open for Menino to pick Johnson’s replacement if “someone amazing comes along and is willing to take the risk.’’ By risk, she refers to the likelihood that whoever is elected mayor in November would quickly toss Menino’s superintendent onto the cold sidewalk in front of school headquarters on Court Street.

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History will be kind to Menino on issues of leadership, neighborhood improvement, public safety, and downtown development. But his record on public education has been mixed, at best. The quality of the city’s schools remains erratic. The central administration is prone to blunders. And efforts to reform the school assignment process came way too late during the mayor’s five-term tenure. The best thing that Menino could do for public education now is to give the next mayor of Boston an unimpeded path to choose a new superintendent.

Menino would unleash a storm of criticism by jamming through a new superintendent before he leaves office. Some people on his seven-member, mayorally appointed School Committee would rebel. So would the business community. Menino is too astute to go out on such a sour note. It’s easier, however, to imagine the mayor and his minions insinuating themselves into the search process for a new superintendent in subtler ways. And the easiest way to do that would be for the mayor to pack the nine-member search panel that is scheduled to vet and recruit superintendent candidates in the fall.

Nearly all of the heavy lifting will be done by this search panel up until it ranks and submits the names of finalists to the mayor and School Committee. So who gets to pick the members of this powerful search team, which usually includes a few School Committee members along with representatives from business, academia, neighborhoods, and faith groups? The legal authority rests with the School Committee. But as a practical matter, City Hall has taken a major role in selecting panelists during prior superintendent searches. That makes perfect sense under ordinary circumstances. The main idea behind a mayorally appointed school board, after all, is to create a direct line of accountability between the schools and the mayor’s office.

But these aren’t ordinary times. Menino is leaving just when a superintendent search should be getting underway in earnest. Loyalists and supporters of an outgoing mayor could play no useful role during such a period. But they could stir up plenty of political trouble for a new mayor.

There’s a simple solution here. The Boston School Committee needs to assert its independence and take upon itself — and only itself — the task of selecting the search panel for a new school superintendent. School Committee members, who serve four-year staggered terms, would also be sending the right message to a new mayor that the committee — though appointed —is a deliberative, policy-setting body, not a rubber stamp. The status of the School Committee, meanwhile, is expected to rise in the next few weeks if Menino shows the good sense to appoint Hardin Coleman, dean of the Boston University School of Education, to fill a current vacancy on the school board.

Menino would unleash a storm of criticism by jamming through a new superintendent before he leaves office. But he could call the shots in subtler ways.

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So far, however, the School Committee isn’t showing much moxie. Michael O’Neill, the board’s chair, indicated in a recent memo to colleagues that the School Committee and mayor “shall jointly develop a (search) panel’’ for a new superintendent. And this week, O’Neill said he is eager to get the “advice and counsel’’ of Mayor Menino.

O’Neill takes umbrage at any suggestion that the School Committee lacks the ability to exercise independent judgment and stand up to the mayor. But this would certainly be one example.

Menino had plenty of shots to be the breakthrough “education mayor’’ who would transform the city’s schools. He missed as many as he made. His otherwise steady hand isn’t needed during the search for a new school superintendent.

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