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Project Review Committee says voice ignored in Bartlett Place charter plans

Project Review Committee says voice ignored in Bartlett Place charter plans
Nuestra Comunidad will develop the former MBTA Bartlett bus yard in Roxbury. Executive director David Price hopes to add a charter school to site plans. (Photo: Photo courtesy Nuestra Comunidad)

As developers look to site a charter school at Bartlett Place, the local Project Review Committee calls foul play.

The issue, PRC members say, is not whether the school will bring value, but a planning process that, in their view, has undercut the purpose and authority of the committee and of the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s promise to incorporate community voice on projects.

“This is about a process that was undermined,” Rodney Singleton, PRC member, said. “Why have a board, why have a BRA, if you can just go around the rules?”

David Price, executive director of Nuestra Comunidad, which owns the site, seeks to bring Conservatory Lab Charter School onto the property. Members of the Project Review Committee charge that the proposal is being steamrolled through, without regard to residents’ wants. PRC members say the school would not meet request for proposals requirements, which call for bringing drivers of economic development and wealth creation — for instance, by providing homeownership and commerce opportunities. The school would enter the community with its staff already hired.

The way the proposal process was handled calls into question whether such committees actually have a say and whether the deck is stacked against them, members say.

“We now face … a developer who has decided to disregard the public process and stakeholder voice to pursue their own agenda,” wrote Michael Miles, co-chair of the Bartlett PRC in a letter to the Roxbury Strategic Master Plan Oversight Committee.

Meanwhile, Price and Gary Gut, chair of the Conservatory Lab Charter School board of trustees, say the school meets the needs outlined by the community and that they have seen strong indication of community support, if not from the PRC. Price says the school qualifies as an economic driver because it would draw customers to nearby businesses. Another reason: The Conservatory Lab agreed to commit a yearly amount of spending on Roxbury goods and services.

Author: Photo courtesy Nuestra ComunidadThe Nuestra Comunidad envisions bringing Conservatory Lab Charter School to Bartlett Place. The community development corporation’s push for the plan has drawn rebuke from the Project Review Committee.

Which came first: Community or plan?

Singleton said many were surprised to hear that the school was being considered for the site, only learning about it when they read of Nuestra and Conservatory Lab’s purchase and sales agreement in the Boston Herald — an article that was published in November 2015.

He said that rather than emerging from community preferences, Nuestra settled its plan with the school first, and now seeks to drum up support.

“They’re just going to ram this down our throats,” he said.

Price and Gut argue that they had reason from the start to believe Roxbury residents wanted the charter.

“We’ve had indications of community support from the get-go,” Gut said. One inspiration for siting the school at Bartlett: the number of Roxbury children on the school’s waiting list.

In Price’s view, the school fits the desires already put forth by the community, including the need for an economic anchor entity on the site. To him, the issue is getting information out about the school’s value so the community recognizes this.

“The support has been growing [since 2014],” he said. “We had to communicate really clearly that the school is not detracting from any economic benefits we committed to.”

In early 2014, three small focus groups — comprising two to three people each — and a 24-person community meeting were convened. The results: 59 percent — 19 people — favored exploring the idea of bringing the charter school, 34 percent opposed it and 6 percent wanted more information.

Project Review Committee resistance

Price and Gut acknowledged that the responses from the Project Review Committee — the group charged with representing the community on this matter — have not run in the school’s favor.

“The three members there [at the last meeting] were against the school and cited reasons I’ve heard for a while. I think the school’s presentation addressed the concerns, but at end of night, they were still against it,” Price said. “I don’t know where the other eleven stand. I’m not sure if they’ve had a chance to weigh in or not.”

“Those voices have been outnumbered by Roxbury residents who have spoken at the same meeting in approval,” Gut said, but added that numbers are not the only thing that matters. “I don’t think this is a popularity contest.”

Whose support?

Despite lack of PRC approval, Price said other indicators — such as applause at recent meetings — showed strong support. Meanwhile, opponents say that much of that support is not from Roxbury residents.

Two community meetings in December drew out 150 people each, Price said. By his estimates, 100 attendees applauded at each for speakers arguing in favor of the charter school’s introduction, while only 10-15 people clapped for speakers who opposed it.

On the Web

Add your voice!

Petition against locating the school at Bartlett Place:

Petition for locating the school there:

“Eyeball count was two-thirds applauding in favor of the school,” Price said. “It was easier to count the opponents because you could literally count them when they were clapping.”

However, not everyone attending the community meeting was a member of the community that will be affected most.

Such meetings are open to anyone — regardless of the neighborhood in which they live. Singleton said that the last one was filled with charter supporters traveling from areas like Allston.

“At the community meetings that I’ve been to, there are lots of parents, lots of folks who don’t live in Roxbury who want this to happen,” he said. “[Conservatory Lab] had stacked the meeting, filled the room with their supporters.”

While not aware of exact numbers, Gut said the amount of Roxbury residents at the meeting was “significant.” Other than some school staff members, the speakers were Roxbury residents, Price said.

The debate has gone online as well, with the school supporters and PRC running online petitions. By the morning of Jan. 5, the pro-Conservatory Lab petition garnered 375 signatures, outpacing PRC’s count of 99. But while most signatories of the PRC petition identify themselves as from Roxbury, the majority of the Conservatory Lab petition signers only list Massachusetts. The pro-Conservatory Lab petition also features a number of out-of-state signers.

Campaign resources

The school’s campaign may be able to draw greater support than the campaign against it in part because it has more resources for promotion.

Among the measures Price used to indicate community opinion was the number of people at meetings who accepted and wore T-shirts charter school staff offered at the door. PRC does not have the funding for that kind of product.

The Project Review Committee is a small team of unpaid volunteers who balance meeting schedules with other commitments, Singleton said.

“We’re not paid — we have other things outside of the community to do — yet you have a paid and organized machine in the developer, Nuestra, and the school,” he said.