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Council candidates push anti-busing agenda

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Council candidates push anti-busing agenda
Ward 11 Democratic Committee Chairwoman Marie Turley introduces at-large City Council candidates during a candidate forum sponsored by the Democratic committees of wards 10, 11, 12 and 19. Candidates are (from l to r) Felix G. Arroyo, John Connolly, William Dorcena, Michael Flaherty, Ayanna Pressley and Sean Ryan. (Photo: Yawu Miller)

Boston’s battle over court-ordered school desegregation has spanned more than four decades. And if this year’s City Council election is any indication, the battle is still on.

Anti-busing sentiment has been an undercurrent in this year’s race with all four white candidates publicly supporting a return to neighborhood schools. At a candidate forum last week, sponsored by wards 10, 11, 12 and 19 and attended largely by white liberals and people of color, there was little mention of ending busing, save for Jamaica Plain resident and former Libertarian Sean Ryan’s call for neighborhood schools and charter schools.

But at the Ward 5 Democratic Committee’s candidate forum, held in June, each of the white candidates for the council echoed Ryan’s call for neighborhood schools. Incumbent Councilor John Connolly said the city could save money by cutting its student transportation budget, likening busing to “re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.”

In many ways, Connolly got the ball rolling in March of this year, with a hearing order asking the council to examine the school’s assignment policy. Councilors Stephen Murphy, Robert Consalvo, Bill Linehan, Sal Lamatina, Matt O’Malley and Maureen Feeney were among those who signed on to the order.

“It’s time to end busing,” Lamatina said during the council meeting. “It’s time to go back to neighborhood schools.”

In a meeting last week, Connolly told members of the Highland Civic Association in West Roxbury he hopes to have the council vote on a new assignment plan in June of next year.

Dissatisfaction with the city’s student assignment process is widespread. Beginning in March this year, the Boston Globe began profiling parents who are trying to navigate the schools assignment process. One family profiled in the series chose seven schools, but did not secure placement for their child in any of them.

When the white council candidates talk about ending busing, they cite cost as a major concern.

“We’re spending far too much money on school transportation, money that could be better spent in the classroom,” said Flaherty, speaking after the ward 9, 10, 11 and 12 debate last week.

Connolly has echoed the same theme, stating that the funding saved from cutting the city’s busing budget could be used to fund arts and sports programs in the schools.

But activists in the black community note that nearly half of the School Department’s $75 million transportation budget — $35 million — goes to busing special education students. The School Department is also required to assume the cost for busing students to charter schools, private schools and parochial schools in Boston.

All of these items in the transportation budget are mandated by the state, according to Myriam Ortiz, executive director of the Boston Parent Organizing Network.

“And with the increase in charter schools next year, that number is going to rise,” she notes.

This is not the first time elected officials have looked to eliminate the school transportation budget. But Kim Janey, a senior project director of the Boston School Reform Initiative at Mass. Advocates for Children, says she doubts the result will be different than any previous attempt to eliminate busing.

“Every time this has come up and they’ve come up with a plan, the savings hasn’t been more than $10 million,” she says. “There are certain neighborhoods that don’t have neighborhood schools or don’t have enough seats to accommodate all their students. The numbers just don’t add up.”

Under the current school assignment plan, the city is divided into three large zones. Parents may apply for a spot in any school within their zone. Roxbury is in the School Department’s West Zone, which also includes Jamaica Plain, Roslindale and West Roxbury — neighborhoods with a relatively high number of white students.

District 4 Councilor Charles Yancey, who represents the predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in Dorchester and Mattapan, says neighborhood schools would limit choices for many parents.

“If you implement neighborhood schools, by definition you’re limiting choice for kids not just in Roxbury and Dorchester, but all over Boston,” he says. “I believe we should have a school system where all the schools are high quality. And I think parents should have the opportunity to choose schools.”

Nowhere is the lack of seats more acute than in Back Bay and Beacon Hill. Parents in Beacon Hill have been advocating for the creation of a public elementary school there for several years. Interestingly, at the Ward 5 meeting in June, Connolly, Flaherty, Murphy and O’Ryan’s calls for neighborhood schools went unchallenged there.

Connolly, who acknowledges that the school assignment policy is a divisive issue, insists that he wants to preserve choice, even as he argues for cutting the schools’ transportation budget.

Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, says Connolly’s position is disingenuous.

“We understand that John’s talking out of both sides of his mouth,” Small says. “We have to talk about equity. We have to make sure the education kids get in Roxbury is the same education that kids get in West Roxbury.”

The School Department’s current student assignment policy is a hybridized system that combines a neighborhood school preference with choice. Half the seats in every elementary school are reserved for students who live within a mile of the school. The other half are open to students living within the same zone.

Because there are a limited number of seats in any given school, competition for better-performing schools is often intense. More often than not, the number of students within walking distance of sought-after schools exceeds the number of seats in those schools.

In those cases, students must compete with others in the same zone for the seats. Parents rank their choices for the schools they want their children to attend, then are assigned one of their choices by what is essentially a lottery in which assignments are chosen by a computer algorithm. In some cases, parents may not receive any of their choices.

Faced with the prospect of enrolling their children in an under-performing school in their zone, many parents opt out of the Boston system, sending their children to private or parochial schools.

Proximity isn’t the only factor parents consider in school assignment.

“Any parent would prefer to send their child to a school next door,” says Ortiz. “But when you consider the quality of schools, parents prefer to put their kids on a bus.”

Janey acknowledges that the current school assignment process can be frustrating.

“I would argue that there are things that can be done to improve the registration process,” she says. “But the bottom line is we have to ensure equitable access to quality schools. I don’t think we should be about neighborhood versus neighborhood or middle class parents versus working class parents.”