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School building closures inevitable

Declining enrollment, inadequate facilities pose dilemma for BPS

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
School building closures inevitable
The BPS headquarters in Nubian Square. BANNER PHOTO

Parents, teachers and students from the Pauline A. Shaw School in Dorchester demonstrated, testified at School Committee meetings and wrote op-eds in a concerted effort to stop what many saw as the district’s attempt to pull the plug on the school, denying them grade expansions while all other BPS elementary schools are switching to a K-6 grade configuration.

While the Jackson/Mann school in Brighton had a K-8 grade configuration, long-delayed repairs prompted the district to close the building, joining the West Academy, the Urban Science Academy and other school communities that have merged or closed in recent years.

The Shaw and Jackson/Mann communities are facing the prospect of school closure, a threat that is affecting school communities across the district as Boston Public Schools officials wrestle with declining enrollments and delayed maintenance at 125 school buildings across the city. Seven years after former Mayor Martin Walsh announced a $1 billion commitment to rebuild and renovate school buildings in Boston, details for how the city will move forward with new school buildings remain murky.

For one, $1 billion doesn’t go far in a district with 125 schools when new school buildings are factored in. Two of the new building projects that are moving forward — a $193 million new Josiah Quincy Upper School building and a $137 million Boston Arts Academy building — account for more than a third of the total funding former Mayor Martin Walsh committed to the 2015 plan. The only other new building in the works is a $92 million new building to house the Carter school, which serves severely disabled students.

The city has also committed to building new schools in the Dorchester/Mattapan and Roxbury/Jamaica Plain areas. City officials have not said whether the buildings will house new schools or absorb schools in buildings that don’t currently meet the needs of existing school communities.

At the same time, the district is continuing to close schools, this year shuttering the Timilty in Roxbury as part of its plan to phase out middle schools. The Irving, a middle school in Roslindale, will remain open to accommodate the sixth grade expansion at the Sumner school.

While outgoing BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will not be in place to follow through on the BuildBPS plan, during a March 16 School Committee meeting she acknowledged that the district is facing tough choices with enrollment down from 52,000 in 2018 to 46,000 this year.

“We know that we eventually have to start closing schools or merging them or something to deal with our enrollment decline,” she said. “We have to start thinking about a comprehensive plan for the district.”

During her tenure, Cassellius pushed for all schools to have what she called a quality guarantee — funding to ensure that all schools have nurses, libraries, physical education and other amenities that students in other districts take for granted.

Yet many Boston schools lack cafeterias, gymnasiums, playgrounds and space for the very things Cassellius says should be standard components of an education. While new school buildings could help the district meet those needs, they would likely lead to closures or mergers.

During the March 16 meeting, Cassellius said that city officials will have to make a firm commitment to fund new schools and upgrade existing ones, beyond the commitments outlined in BuildBPS. But she warned that the city has to commit to providing adequate funding for repairs and renovations.

“If there’s no funding that ultimately comes to the School Committee saying ‘I’m going to commit this amount of money to this project,’ it is literally pointless to do all this work and cause all this angst with the community,” she said. “I just want to say that up front.”

Cassellius said the City Council needs to provide funding and revenue to keep school buildings in good repair.

“It is time for the city to step up,” she said.

Whatever investment the administration of Mayor Michelle Wu decides to invest in the BPS capital budget, the immediate future for school communities such as the Horace Mann, which serves deaf and hearing-impaired students, remain uncertain. The Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing survived the demise of the building it shared with the Jackson/Mann and will be housed temporarily in the Edwards school building in Charlestown, but some in the school community expressed doubt about the city’s long-term plans.

“It’s taken us seven years to identify a swing space,” said teacher Roseanna Jones during an April 7 School Committee meeting. “But we still have no idea what the design plans look like, any sense of a timeline, or even confirmation that we’re returning to our current location.”

Horace Mann parent Charlie Kim noted that BPS officials first informed the school community that the building would close in 2018.

“Since then we have had three mayors, three School Committee chairs and three superintendents,” he said. “A lot of things have changed, except the fact that the Horace Mann does not have a plan for a new permanent home back in Allston.”

Much of the city’s current $1 billion commitment to BPS school buildings consists of long-overdue repairs — roofs, boilers, windows and doors, HVAC systems, bathrooms and other renovations. The city plans to pay for the projects through $730 million in municipal bonds and $270 million in state funding.

The commitment is the largest single investment in the schools in decades. But as Cassellius sees it, the funding is late in coming.

“The fact that kids haven’t had clean water in Boston until now is just really unacceptable,” she said during the March 16 meeting.

School buildings with playgrounds, gymnasiums, libraries and working HVAC systems are a rarity in Boston. The lack of such things in Boston doesn’t sit will with the departing superintendent.

“These are just basic things that every other kid has in the suburban areas or in wealthier areas,” Cassellius told the School Committee. “It’s just not fair.”

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