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Community Voices: BPS proposal needs further review

Nora L. Toney

On Dec. 2, 2010 Boston Superintendent Carol Johnson presented the district’s proposals to cope with the $63 million budget deficit projected for FY2012. Johnson’s proposals for reducing and controlling costs are organized into five steps, including a step called “filling empty seats.”

That step requires the district to close or merge schools, imposing serious, painful disruptions on the families, students and staff that are directly impacted by the closures and mergers.

The Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts, Inc. (BEAM) understands the need for the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to reduce and control costs in the current economic environment. We do not, however, believe that BPS alone should have to close the projected deficit. BEAM believes that the Mayor should use additional city revenues and reserves to fund a substantial portion of the deficit. Before the Superintendent and the School Committee make their decisions, the Mayor should announce the entire FY2012 budget plans and the reserves that will be used to cover projected deficits.

BEAM does not support the proposal to close schools for the following reasons. First, the district has not provided requested detailed information about school vacancies or choices. Vacancy and choice information has been released selectively about some schools targeted for closing but not comprehensively by grade level and program for all schools. This information is critical to independently assessing the rationale for closing schools.

Second, the application of the criteria for school closings is not clear or consistent. Multiple small elementary schools, for examples, have low enrollments, academic performance, and school choice rates, along with a number of vacant seats, but four small schools (Emerson, Farragut, Fifield and East Zone ELC) were chosen for closure. We do not understand how these four schools were chosen and not others that met the same school closing criteria.

Third, BEAM is concerned about the profound impact that the proposed school closings will have on students and their families. BPS has not presented data indicating that displaced students will have sufficient access to seats in schools that are performing at comparable or higher academic levels and that will provide the services that students need if they are in special education or in English Language Learning programs. Giving students priority in enrolling in schools that are not performing at least as well as their current schools is denying them equitable academic opportunities.

Further, historically a disproportionate number of the school closings have occurred in the black community. BEAM is concerned that of the eight schools proposed to close, i.e. the East Zone ELC, Fifield, Emerson, Farragut and Agassize Elementary Schools, the Middle School Academy, The Engineering High School and Social Justice Academy High School are all either located in communities of color or effect a majority of black and Latino students.

Lastly, BEAM is concerned about the ongoing issues of equity and disparate impact raised by the proposed school closings. Additional school closings are proposed for Roxbury and Dorchester, further diminishing the opportunities for students and families to attend high quality schools in their communities and damaging the relationships that schools have built with their communities. Moreover, one school, the Roger Clap Elementary School, which was initially designated for closure, will now become an “innovation” school. Why were other schools planned for closure not provided with the same opportunity?

The Redesign and Reinvest presentation on Dec. 2 proposes four other steps, not including school closings, that would reduce the projected FY2012 budget by millions of dollars. Since education is the top priority of the city, the Mayor has an obligation to increase funding for the Boston Public Schools, even in the current challenging economic environment. The Superintendent should reconsider and School Committee should not approve the school closings proposed on Dec. 2, 2010 and scheduled for a vote on Dec. 15, 2010.

Nora L. Toney is the BEAM president.