Boston Public School parents and local education activists are increasingly worried about what they fear will be inevitable school closings and consolidations as enrollment continues to decline. From 2015 to today, the number of students educated by the BPS has dropped by 15%, from 54,000 students to 46,000.
Parents and school reform advocates said they want a master plan for the $2 billion in school building changes that Mayor Michelle Wu proposed in the spring as part of herGreen New Deal for BPS. Some said a detailed blueprint would give children more educational stability and allow families to plan for changes, as well as ensure racial fairness. Others said urgent and comprehensive planning is a financial necessity in a city where enrollment is trending downward.
Brenda Ramsey, a Dorchester mother of two, doesn’t like the current uncertainty. Her youngest daughter attends the PA Shaw, a school that may — or may not — be on the chopping block. She already experienced the closure of the Mattahunt Elementary five years ago with her oldest daughter and isn’t eager to go through that again.
“I don't know if [district leaders] know what it's like to have to go through a shutdown,” Ramsey said. “It's traumatic for the students, it’s traumatic for the families.”
Will Austin of the Boston Schools Fund said Wu’s Green New Deal falls short of being an actual plan. The "green" part of the proposal refers to making schools climate-reslient, Wu has said, because they produce more than half of the emissions from city-owned buildings. Austin said he's concerned that the city hasn't disclosed specifics outlining how it will move forward.
"That level of detail planning has not existed," he said. "A true master facilities plan will lay out in very, very clear detail what projects are being prioritized. Where, why, and what is the rough budget and executional plan for that? Absent that, you're just talking about ideas.”
School district leaders have said Wu’s team announced preliminary plans and are undertaking a broader Facilities Condition Assessment and a School Design Study. The mayor proposed funding 25 new staff positions, including 10 within the city budget, and 15 on the BPS facilities team. Wu has also proposed renovating or consolidating 15 schools in advance of the creation of a master plan that will be completed by fiscal year 2025.
That long timeline has frustrated parents and caregivers who have literally watched their kids grow up amid successive promises of school improvements and renovations under previous administrations that never fully materialized. There was the Redesign and Reinvest plan during former Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration, the Build BPS initiative under former Mayor Marty Walsh and now Wu’s Green New Deal for BPS.
Democrats for Education Reform state director Mary Tamer, a former Boston School Committee member, said more planning urgency is needed. Successive mayors have allowed the problem of excess capacity in the schools to worsen as school enrollment in Boston continues to shrink. When the number of students shrinks at a school, so does the per-pupil spending, often leaving a school underfunded, with unfilled seats or less money for teachers.
Right now, the difference is as much as $50 million at all Boston schools combined, a pricetag referred to as a “soft landing” money.
"If we ever want to truly invest in our school system, we cannot be throwing away $50 million a year on empty seats," Tamer said. "We cannot continue to kick this can down the road, we have to have a plan of what schools are we going to close? What school buildings do we need for the number of children we actually have in the system?"
Former BPS administrator and veteran school activist Barbara Fields said a thorough master plan is the only equitable way forward. She is part of the Build BPS Coaltion that has scrutinized school restructing plans under the Walsh administration. (The group is considering changing its name to the Green New Deal Coalition, she said.)
Fields said the Black Educators Association of Massachusetts and the Committee for Civil Rights filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights criticizing former Mayor Menino's Redesign and Reinvest plan — which involved closing 18 city schools — because 90% of the students it would have affected were Black or Brown.
“Black students in predominately Black communities are disproportionately disrupted, dispersed, reassigned, and subject to school mergers while White and Asian students are more likely to enjoy stability, enhancement of programs and upgraded facilities,” the complaint said.
Fields said that complaint, filed in 2011, was never resolved. And she said she now wants to see a comprehensive plan, one that has been vetted using the district’s Racial Equity Planning Tool, a district policy required to ensure fair decision-making. She said decisions about schools like the PA Shaw or a half dozen schools in Roslindale are being made in the interim. She said she has personally asked for a meeting with Wu's administration on this issue, after Wu promised such a meeting on the campaign trail, but has not received a response.
“We do not want the impact of the school closings to be in the Black community, where the negative impact has always been,” Fields said.
Fields said the PA Shaw K-4 school in Mattapan, whose student body is overwhelmingly Black, was not given the green light to expand from kindergarten to sixth grade. It currently serves grades K-4, and the fourth grade class is a temporary one-year addition in response to parents' pleas. Fields said the rationale was that there was no clear location for it.
That differs from Wu's proposed school consolidations of several schools in Roslindale, which the School Committee allowed to add a sixth-grade classes even though it's unclear where those classrooms will be located.
“They all started in a similar boat, but were treated totally different,” Fields said.
The Sumner School, which Wu’s son attends, is one of those schools in Roslindale. Parents there are unhappy with Wu's plans too, and the iffy nature of some changes in the absence of a larger district-wide plan.
Allison Jacobs Friedman, a parent at the Sumner, said the school has the most racially and neurodiverse student population in the Roslindale section of the city. She questioned why whiter, wealthier schools in Roslindale are not facing closure or reconfiguration if enrollments are declining. And like Fields, she urged the city to use the district’s Racial Equity Planning Tool to plan more comprehensively and fairly.
“What we're opposed to is a one-off merger, where there's no plan for where we're going to go in the future,” Friedman said. “Basically, we need a long-term plan.”
In the interim, the Boston School Committee will be reviewing proposals around how schools will be reconfigured next fall.