School Closures Up For Vote; Parents Wait

By Andrea Smardon

View BPS Redesign and Reinvest Plan in a larger map
See how the proposed changes affect the city's different neighborhoods. Red pins show closures and blue pins show mergers. Click each pin for more detail. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Dec. 15. 2010

BOSTON -- The Boston Public School Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday evening on a plan that would close 9 schools, while merging and expanding others.  Faced with a budget deficit for the upcoming year; the closures proposed by superintendent Carol Johnson are projected to save the district more than $10 million.  But parents and teachers argue that the disruption caused by the moves will not be worth the savings.

Parents implored the School Committee not to close the Agassiz School at a committee meeting at English High School on Dec. 7. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

It was standing room only at last week’s Boston Public School Committee meeting. Parents, teachers, students and school staff filled the auditorium – over 100 of whom signed up to give testimony.

The vast majority of those who did speak, including Wayne Wilson of Roslindale, implored the committee not to close their local schools.

“I’m not giving this up without a fight.  It’s too important for my family, your family and the families that were created in these schools,” Wilson said.

Wilson is father to Tommy - a boy with autism who attends preschool at Louis Aggasiz Elementary in Jamaica Plain.  Wilson says his son is doing well there. He’s learning to sign, make eye contact, and connect with people.   But he doesn’t want his son’s progress to end, and he says the school created a class for Tommy’s needs to be met.

“We were placed there due to the fact that there wasn’t anything else in the West District.  Is my Tommy supposed to go on a bus across town being nonverbal for an hour and a half? It doesn’t make any sense,” Wilson said.

Agassiz Elementary is one of nine schools slated for closure.  It’s part of superintendent Carol Johnson’s plan to consolidate resources by closing, merging and expanding schools.

Like Wilson, parents and school staff tried to convince the school committee that forcing students to change schools would set them back academically and socially – particularly special education students and English Language Learners.

Marissa Serrette, a student at Brook Farm Academy, doesn't want to see her school merge with another. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

They were concerned about safety, longer bus rides, and limited school choices. And they pointed out that Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in the closed schools.

Speaking in her office this week, Superintendent Carol Johnson acknowledged the hardship for the communities affected.

“We know this can be disruptive, we know if can be unsettling, and we know we have to provide added support to students, families and to staff as we go through this very difficult transition with these changes and our overall budget,” Johnson said.

According to Johnson, there are 5600 empty seats scattered around the school district, which cost schools and taxpayers millions of dollars.  But Boston Teacher’s Union president Richard Stutman says the disruption in education caused by shutting schools and redistricting is not worth the money saved.  Stutman says $10 million is a drop in the bucket, when you consider the district has a $63 million shortfall.

“We’re making a decision that will disrupt thousands of children to save a few dollars.  If it were just an academic decisions that would be a diff. animal, but this is economic,” Stutman said.

Stutman also wants to know why it’s those schools on the chopping block. “I think you have to have reason for doing it, closing one versus another and I’m not sure the superintendent has met that test,” Johnson said.

Over 100 people hoped to speak at the last BPS committee meeting before their Dec. 15 vote on a proposal to shutter schools. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Johnson says the schools targeted for closure were not performing well academically.  She says it was a tough decision but she had to weigh the needs of all the students in the school system against the inconveniencing of a few. 

“If we continue with business as usual then we won’t have the resources to provide any school with the resources that they need,” Johnson said.

She says the school system needs permanent, structural change to thrive. “We’re hoping to put in some permanent reductions, that reduce the amount of budget cutting we have to do every year, where we’re nibbling at the edges or cutting across the board, not in strategic ways, but where we’re nibbling away at the quality of the academic programs in general.”

The downsizing of Boston public schools comes at a time when charter schools are expanding.  The teachers union passed out flyers at last week’s committee meeting accusing the superintendent and the mayor of making secret deals to lease the closed facilities to charter schools.  Johnson denied that any real estate deals were made, but did not rule out the possibility that charter schools would make use of the closed buildings.

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