City Councilors quiz Boston Public Schools officials on bus plan

Yawu Miller | 5/28/2014, 10:18 a.m.

Making the case for putting 7th and 8th graders on the MBTA was a tough job, made all the more so by skeptical city councilors and an audience of disgruntled parents and school bus drivers.

But Interim School Superintendent John McDonough made the case for the change, which would save the school system $8 million and, along with other measures, help plug a $107 million deficit in the department’s $1 billion budget.

Flanked by Transportation Director Carl Allen and Chief Operating Officer Kim Rice, McDonough explained last week that his administration has spread cuts throughout its departments. Allen described how school department officials are working with other city agencies to improve crosswalks and pedestrian lights near schools to make students’ commutes safer.

Allen also said Boston Police, school police and MBTA Police officers would work with school officials and volunteers to ensure that students are safe in high-traffic areas, including bus and train stations where teens often congregate.

“Our objective is to create positive adult presence at the stations and prevent negative interactions with the police,” Allen said.

But District 7 Councilor Tito Jackson remained unconvinced.

“We’re not talking about crosswalks and lights,” he said. “We are putting young children into situations where they have to make adult decisions. We have to think about these issues in light of the real issue — the underlying issue is whether or not young people will be safe,” Jackson said.

Jackson and others at the hearing questioned how the school department can ensure the safety of students who don’t feel safe navigating neighborhoods where gang activity is rampant.

Rice said the plan could provide school bus service for students who have to make multiple transfers between bus and train routes to get to school.

District 1 Councilor Sal LaMattina, District 4 Councilor Charles Yancey and District 5 Councilor Timothy McCarthy questioned the school officials about the plan. McCarthy asked whether the school department has considered substituting vans for buses (they have). LaMattina echoed Jackson’s concerns.

“If you live in East Boston and go to Boston Latin, you would have to take a bus to the Blue Line, the Blue Line to the Orange Line, and the Orange Line to the Green Line,” he said. “That’s a long day for our kids.”

Rice re-iterated the department’s commitment to providing bus service for students whose commutes involve multiple transfers.

Councilor Yancey reminded McDonough of the council’s budgetary power.

“The Boston City Council is an elected body,” he said. “We represent the people. The city council has the option of approving or disapproving the budget of a department.”

School officials were also summoned to the council’s Iannella Chamber for hearings on plans to cut social science and history staff from the department’s central curriculum staff as part of a reduction of 119 of the department’s 2,000 central staff jobs. History and social studies will remain as subjects taught in the schools, and no teachers will lose their jobs as part of the reorganization.

Another hearing last week focused on the department’s efforts to recruit black and Latino teachers to the schools.