Lessons from Chelsea: Silber Crusades to Save Public Schools

Two centuries ago, Chelsea was a magnet for Boston’s new immigrants. Nestled on the Mystic River, just across from downtown, the growing community offered a rural environment, just a few minutes’ sail from the harbor.

All that, alas, was two centuries ago. As the twentieth century began, a massive fire ripped through Chelsea, virtually destroying the old housing stock. New houses and apartment buildings were eventually built, but so was the Tobin Bridge, a massive span that runs directly across Chelsea, linking Boston with the northern suburbs and New Hampshire. Shadowed by the bridge and snarled by the traffic congestion, Chelsea became perhaps the least desirable suburb in the Greater Boston area.

The City of Chelsea still beckons to immigrants, but the new arrivals are far from affluent. Today 45 percent of Chelsea’s 25,000 residents are Hispanic, with most coming from impoverished backgrounds in Puerto Rico. The percentage of residents who do not speak English, and the percentage on welfare, is the highest in Massachusetts. Drug abuse and alcoholism are epidemic.

With a per capita income under $10,000 and no significant commercial base, Chelsea cannot generate much tax revenue. Property values are declining so steadily that property taxes, which brought $15 million in revenue in 1980, fell below $14 million by 1990. Of the city’s $40 million budget, $21 million comes from state aid. Boosted by exorbitant contracts with public employees’ unions, the city’s expenses have outstripped the inflation rate. In 1986, when Chelsea suffered through yet another tragic fire, the city’s misery was complete.

Chelsea’s public schools reflect the ravages of the city. The teen pregnancy rate is among the state’s highest; 75 percent of the students come from families on welfare; 15 percent drop out of school each year; only 50 percent of all high school freshmen eventually graduate. The school buildings desperately need repairs that the city’s budget will not allow.

In 1987, at the request of the Chelsea School Committee, Boston University conducted an in-depth evaluation of the city’s school system. To no one’s surprise, after 10 months of research, the university’s investigative team announced, “The performance of the schools is abysmal.” But having reached that predictable conclusion, the Boston University report plunged ahead in an unexpected new direction.

A routine academic report would have lambasted Chelsea schools, suggested a few incremental improvements, called for greater government funding, and quietly closed the issue. But when they asked Boston University to conduct the study, Chelsea’s leaders were not enlisting any routine academic team. For a generation, BU has been guided by one of America’s most aggressive and outspoken academic administrators, John Silber. During his presidency Silber has transformed the university almost beyond recognition and turned an undistinguished private university into a significant national presence in academic affairs, and a major power on Boston’s political scene.

Silber rarely shrinks from a challenge. In 1990 he jumped into the Massachusetts gubernatorial race, won the Democratic nomination, and barely lost in November after dominating the campaign with his own provocative (sometimes downright abrasive) policy statements. Back in 1987, when he led BU into the Chelsea study, he saw a different sort of challenge: the opportunity to transform that troubled school system. When the BU study was finished, the final report reflected Silber’s bulldog approach. “For the past 30 years, the city’s dire condition has been widely reported and documented by government agencies and academics,” the BU team pointed out, and “for the past 30 years researchers have delivered their reports and left, retreating from the challenge and responsibility.” BU would not retreat from the challenge.

Tossing aside all caution, BU offered to take over complete responsibility for Chelsea’s schools. The BU report painted this unique proposal in grand, sweeping terms: “Much is at stake: Chelsea’s future, the university’s reputation, and the country’s hopes for public education.” Soon the City of Chelsea, too, accepted the challenge.

From the first day of the 1989-1990 academic year, the BU management team fulfilled the University’s pledge with direct, aggressive involvement in Chelsea’s educational problems. Teachers won a new contract, with a 26 percent raise. A dynamic new superintendent was enlisted: Diana Lam, a Peruvian-born bilingual educator from the Boston public school system with a record of stimulating productive changes. BU funds began pouring into the troubled city, and 400 students from BU crossed the Mystic River to tutor elementary-school pupils. The BU School of Public Health joined forces with Chelsea’s Human Services Collaborative to develop a health-care plan; the School of Social Work chipped in with drug- education programs.

Peter Greer, dean of the BU School of Education, chaired the university’s Chelsea team, and his personal involvement exemplified the university’s growing stake in the city. As the months passed, he found his concerns for Chelsea crowding out his other academic concerns, so that Chelsea became not so much a project as an obsession. As he told one Boston audience, “My wife, Terry, bet me I couldn’t go five minutes at a party without mentioning Chelsea. I lost. So I made the same bet about her. She lost.”

The infusion of energy from BU quickly yielded dramatic results. In one year, the SAT scores of Chelsea students rose by 54 points on the verbal test, 42 points in mathematics, for an overall increase of 14 percent. In October 1990, when public school students took the Massachusetts Basic Skills tests, 91 percent of Chelsea third-graders met the norm in reading, as compared with 75 percent just one year earlier; the percentages of success in math (89 percent in 1990, 82 percent in 1989), and writing (91 percent, up from 83 percent) also showed a strong positive trend. The early returns were in, and the BU-Chelsea compact looked like a winner.

With a touch of understandable bravado, Superintendent Lam opened the 1990 academic year on an ebullient note: “The only real criterion we should have in public education … is whether we would enroll our own child, or the child we most love, in the school where we teach. Visiting the Early Learning Center over the weekend, I regretted that I did not have a five-year-old daughter or son I could enroll. In fact, I regretted that I was not five years old myself.”

Those initial successes reflected not only hard work in the classroom, but also success in a series of local political battles. Disaffected parents argued that the university was dictatorial and insensitive to the community. (Perhaps not coincidentally, those criticisms echoed the personal criticisms which ultimately derailed John Silber’s gubernatorial campaign.) The Chelsea School Committee, reduced to spectator status, complained steadily about being excluded from BU’s decision-making process. As the BU-Chelsea partnership began its second academic year, four of the seven committee members told the Boston Globe that they would be prepared to sever that partnership, if not for the disruption that break would cause.

Those criticisms could be dismissed — as BU’s Peter Greer did dismiss them — as the “constant nuisances” thrown up by politicians fighting to protect their turf. But Chelsea politics soon threw up a much more serious roadblock. In January 1991, Mayor John Brennan saw the city headed into a financial crisis and ordered School Superintendent Lam to slice $384,000 from her already spare budget. In March the city refused to raise property taxes, increasing the fiscal squeeze; the Board of Aldermen ordered a whopping $4.6 million cut from the education budget. At a turbulent public hearing to discuss the city budget, BU’s Silber was drowned out by police officers and firefighters, who were angry about layoffs in their own departments, and convinced that Silber was over-emphasizing the schools. “At the same time we are making progress, they are tearing apart the system,” Greer lamented.

By June the city’s finances were in a tailspin. For the first time, teachers missed a paycheck. Just to cover its immediate payroll obligations, the city needed a special injection of $960,000 from the state legislature. Struggling to cut costs without violating union contracts, BU was forced to lay off all 280 tenured teachers in the Chelsea system, planning to re-hire them in the fall. But without some new source of funding, permanent cuts were inevitable. Prudent teachers naturally began looking for more secure employment elsewhere.

On July 1, Diana Lam added to the confusion by resigning, announcing her intention to challenge Boston’s Mayor Flynn in the 1991 election. (Her campaign quickly collapsed.) Dean Peter Greer stepped into the breach, assuming still more responsibilities for the Chelsea project by assuming the role of superintendent. By now the operation of Chelsea’s schools reflected not a partnership between city and university, but a solitary effort by BU. Silber pointed out that his university — which needs funds for its own operations — had pumped $4 million into the Chelsea system. That flow could continue, he promised, but “as a matter of principle” the university could not continue to subsidize a city that was not pulling its own weight.

Boston Next?

As BU struggled against the fiscal current in Chelsea, the irrepressible John Silber — back at BU, his gubernatorial campaign behind him — looked for new fields to conquer. He did not need binoculars. Ever since the furor that accompanied mandatory busing in 1973, the public schools of Boston have plummeted steadily toward hopelessness. Parents who could afford private schools fled, leaving less fortunate families to cope with crime, vandalism, and neglect. Test scores steadily declined, absenteeism soared.

If anything could rival the chaos in Boston’s classrooms, it was the chaos among the community’s public school officials. Since 1975, eight different superintendents had passed through the system, each one encountering a mine field dotted by angry parents, disaffected students, despairing teachers, and — worst of all — ambitious politicians. Infighting among members of the School Committee paralyzed that body. Finally, in 1991, Mayor Raymond Flynn had seen enough. He proposed to abolish Boston’s elected School Committee and replace it with an appointed body. His success in winning legislative approval for that anti-democratic plan is a testimony not only to Flynn’s personal popularity but also to the universal disdain which the School Committee had earned.

Desperate for solutions to his own school crisis, Mayor Flynn turned to John Silber. After initial talks, Flynn suggested that a team from BU should study the Boston school system and offer suggestions for improvement, just as BU had offered suggestions for the Chelsea system in 1988. The results seemed easy to predict: BU would recommend another, much more ambitious version of the Chelsea partnership.

But as soon as Flynn opened the door, the Boston School Committee slammed it shut, refusing to cooperate with BU’s study. Jon Westling, executive vice president of BU, complained, “We have been denied access to the full range of information that would have been necessary.

I think that the School Committee has shown a pretty persistent reluctance over the years to have their stewardship of the Boston public schools evaluated objectively and comprehensively.”

Frustrated by the political roadblocks, BU eventually dropped its plans to audit the Boston schools. The School Committee then commissioned a similar study by Northeastern University. John O’Bryant, the School Committee’s president, sits on Northeastern’s board, and Northeastern has shown absolutely no interest in taking control of the Boston school system. For the foreseeable future, at least, BU will not have the opportunity to renew the Chelsea experiment on a grander scale.

Regrettably, BU might not even have the opportunity to finish its work in Chelsea. The City has plunged into bankruptcy; it can no longer uphold its obligations for fire and police protection, let alone public schools.

In August, a special advisory committee recommended placing the City of Chelsea in receivership. Mayor Brennan heartily endorsed the measure, and early in September Governor William Weld added his approval. While other towns were preparing to open school doors, Chelsea was awaiting the legislature’s action on an emergency bill to install a receive, who would hold plenipotentiary powers to rewrite municipal contracts.

Mayor Brennan and Governor Weld agreed that the city’s financial disaster should be addressed immediately, so that the schools could open on time. But the politicians were doing their utmost merely to ensure that the schools would open. Decisions about the quality of education, and the role of BU participants, were placed entirely in the hands of the receiver, James Carlin, who had a host of other urgent problems stacked up on his desk when he arrived on the scene in Chelsea. The key component of the BU-Chelsea experiment — the factor that enticed John Silber into the city — was the city’s willingness to give BU a free hand in running the schools. In theory the new receiver could show that same willingness. But the prospects for complete amity — between the notoriously strong-willed John Silber and an all-powerful receiver on a cost-cutting crusade — are not good.

Further into the future, prospects are still more uncertain. Receivership in only a temporary solution. Even after the union contracts are broken, the public services pared back, and the budgets slashed, Chelsea will still lack the tax base necessary to sustain public services over the long haul. The only long-term solution, it seems, is annexation; Chelsea must be absorbed into some other larger, stronger municipality — in other words, Boston. Could the BU-Chelsea experiment spread through the hapless Boston school system? Characteristically, John Silber lusts for the challenge.

The final test of the BU-Chelsea school partnership will be political, not academic; the only math test that matters will come when the receiver balances the city’s budget. Despite all BU’s best efforts, the one certain lesson from Chelsea is a reminder that in government-sponsored schools, academic success is no guarantee against political failure.


Philip F. Lawler, a former editor of Crisis Magazine, is the author most recently, of Contagious Faith: Why the Church Must Spread Hope, Not Fear, in a Pandemic.

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