School plan process draws fire
Parent organizers wary of charter, district school collaboration
As the statewide battle over charter school expansion heats up, a local battle is brewing between Mayor Martin Walsh and a group of parent organizers who are alleging the city plans to transfer Boston Public Schools buildings to charter schools.
The local dispute centers around a Sept. 29 meeting Walsh had with the Boston parent group Quality Education for Every Student. Organizers say Walsh told them the BPS would reduce the number of school buildings it operates from the current 126 to 90.
The allegation comes at a time when charters are seeking to expand in Boston, potentially taking funds away from the BPS.
“I never said that,” Walsh told the Banner when questioned about the conversation.
Walsh notes that the school department is undertaking an audit of its facilities to determine the needs of the city’s students and the school buildings that serve them.
“It’s too early yet to talk about it,” he said of school closings. “When you talk about closing schools, you don’t close schools unless you have an operational plan. I don’t want to speculate about what’s going to happen. We could be merging schools. We could be looking at a redesign of high schools and building new schools.”
QUEST member Kevin Murray says he remembers clearly that Walsh told the group the department would pare their buildings down to 90.
“I think he realized he’d made a mistake,” Murray said. “People looked at him like he misspoke. People asked him questions, but there was no further clarification.”
Whether or not Walsh cited 90 schools, there has long been talk of merging and consolidating schools, as the cost of salaries, benefits, transportation and operations continue to outpace increases in school funding. The department’s structural deficit already has led to yearly school closings and an end to yellow bus service for seventh and eighth graders.
Last year, former interim school superintendent John McDonough told reporters that school districts across the country comparable in size to Boston’s population of 57,000 students have on average 72 school buildings, according to an analysis undertaken by the department.
There has been no public discussion of closing schools, other than the announcements of two or three planned closures that occur each year amid talk of rising costs and inadequate revenue.
The facilities master planning process — expected to be completed next year — will examine what it will take to modernize the buildings in the BPS system and include a demographic study to determine whether and where student populations are likely to increase.
“We may have to look at different grade configuration and feeder patterns,” said Education Chief Rahn Dorsey. “Some of these things may need to change. We don’t know.”
Ultimately, Walsh says, the BPS school buildings may need upwards of $1 billion in renovations. Most Boston school buildings were built before World War II. Many have potentially expensive delayed maintenance issues like leaking roofs.
Adding fuel to the controversy is the work of the Boston Compact, an organization funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that coordinates planning and promotes sharing of resources between district, charter and parochial schools. Blogger Mary Lewis-Pierce posted the July 2015 agenda of a meeting the group convened at City Hall. One agenda item called on Boston-based charter and Catholic schools to conduct a parallel facilities planning process and create draft templates for “cross-sector leases and co-locations.”
QUEST members worry that district school buildings could be transferred to charter schools.
“The concern is that there’s a plan to move the system in a direction that’s more friendly to charters and move charters into BPS buildings,” Murray said. “It’s the logical next step for charters if they’re going to expand in Boston.”
City Councilor Tito Jackson said the school department’s facilities plan should not benefit schools that are not owned and managed by the district.
“The underlying issue is that this comprehensive facilities plan is for the Boston Public Schools,” he said. “It’s being paid for by the city of Boston. It should not be used to explore anything other than the needs of Boston Public School students.”
Because charters draw their per-pupil funding from the school districts in which they operate, Boston charter schools are in a zero-sum game with BPS schools. For each student who enrolls in a charter school, the district loses the equivalent of its average per-pupil allocation for that student. Although the state is required to partially reimburse the district for the loss of funds, the legislature has never allocated adequate funds to do so.
In addition to coordinating the use of school buildings, the Boston Compact also is exploring a unified enrollment system, whereby parents would fill out one application that would give them the choice of attending either district-run or charter schools. Under that scenario, charters would be required to increase services for special needs students and English language learners, two populations that are currently underrepresented in most charter schools.
Implementing the plan would mesh charter schools, which allow students from anywhere inside or outside the district where they are located to enroll, with the BPS neighborhood-based assignment policy, which factors in a student’s proximity to nearby schools. Allowing charter schools to give neighborhood preference would require a change to state law.
The proposed unified enrollment plan received significant pushback during the last two of a series of public meetings the Boston Compact held to solicit community feedback.
“Every parent who spoke, whether charter or BPS, said, ‘What on earth is this? We don’t need this,’” said Heshan Berents Weeramuni, a parent activist with QUEST.
“If charters want this, what’s stopping them from creating a one-stop application for themselves?” he questioned.
Whether BPS adopts unified enrollment or decreases the number of school buildings in its inventory, parents will be involved in the decision, Walsh said.
“Whenever the School Committee or the school department makes a decision, it’s got to be in the best interests of the students and the best interests of moving our district forward,” he said. “Parents absolutely will be at the table and absolutely will have a voice in that. There’s no question about it.”