BPS pulls back on rezoning

June 12, 2009
By

DAVID TABER

Public outcry over a Boston Public Schools (BPS) plan to save on transportation costs by moving from a three-zone to five-zone system led BPS superintendent Carol Johnson to shelve the plan early this month.

As the Gazette previously reported, a proposal in the plan to turn Egleston Square’s Hernandez School—a unique “two-way bilingual” school offering lessons in both Spanish and English—from a citywide school to a district school was particularly controversial.

The superintendent had planned to present a plan—Pathways to Excellence III—that included proposals for improving student support services and family engagement but prominently featured the rezoning proposal at the June 3 meeting of the BPS School Committee.

The original schedule called for the school committee to vote on the plan at its June 24 meeting and for it to be implemented beginning in the 2010 school year.

But, in a memorandum to the school committee presented at the June 3 meeting, Johnson recommended “the school committee not take action on June 24, but rather give me and my team some time to follow-up on the questions and comments we have heard.”

City Councilor John Tobin told the Gazette he is “disappointed” in BPS for backing off of the plan. “I think it’s more of the same,” he said. “You’ve got to make tough decisions and bold decisions”

Tobin previously told the Gazette he supported rezoning for the school system, but opposed turning the Hernandez and another citywide middle school, the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury, into district schools.

BPS spokesperson Chris Horan said the superintendent still plans to move forward with a cost-saving transportation plan, just more slowly. Johnson will “come back in September or October,” with proposals for near-term changes to the school’s busing program, but will spend more time reexamining rezoning, he said.

“We know we have to go back and do some more work,” Horan said.

The rezoning plan would save the school system between $2 million and $3 million, according to BPS esti-mates. With other proposed transportation changes—including consolidating bus yards and installing computer-ized routing systems—the savings from the plan could be as much as $10.4 million.

But the proposal has faced a rocky road. In the first version, presented in February, the area proposed as zone 3, which includes JP, was short 616 middle school seats.

The proposal to turn the Hernandez into a district school, and proposals to turn JP’s Agassiz Elementary School and the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End—another proposed Zone 3 school into a K-8, were meant to fix that problem.

But faculty, parents and advocates expressed strong opposition to the change at the Hernandez School. Advocates said it would be unfair to block access to the long-running, successful program before insuring that equivalent alternatives are in place. They also said provisions in the plan that would allow current students to continue attending the Hernandez after 2010, but would discontinue transportation would be un-tenable for many parents.

They also questioned the wisdom of bringing older students into a program that demands language acquisi-tion and facility in order to understand many of the lessons.

The Agassiz School, the Gazette has recently learned, might not be the ideal location for expansion ei-ther. Enrollment at the school on Childs Street has been low for years, partly due to concerns about chronic air-quality problems, including mold, City Councilor John Tobin told the Gazette. Tobin and City Councilor Chuck Turner plan to hold a hearing about conditions at the Agassiz later this month. [See related article.]

Speaking about rezoning in general, Tobin said BPS might grease the skids and get a better response from underserved communities if it targeted savings toward improving schools in those communities.

“If you are going to save money in transportation, ID the schools it is going to help. People in communi-ties of color do not like busing their kids for hours.”

Horan said Johnson recognizes there are “inequities” in the system, and that Johnson will continue to work to address them. Part of the motivation for pulling back on rezoning is that the effects of reform ef-forts in the last few years, aimed at improving access, have not had a chance to percolate down through the system, he said.

Tobin said he is hopeful a new school-zone plan will be in place by 2015, when BPS’s contact with the busing company First Student runs out.

He previously told the Gazette he would like to see that national carrier’s contract replaced with zone-by-zone contracts with smaller local busing companies.