No public input on BCYF centers pull-out

April 30, 2010
By

John Ruch

No Plan B in place

The city’s plan to pull out of two local community centers was decided with no public input whatsoever about those centers, according to Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) documents obtained by the Gazette.

And there is no Plan B if the city is unsuccessful in getting private organizations to take over the programs at the Agassiz and English High centers, BCYF Executive Director Daphne Griffin told the Gazette in a phone interview.

“I just don’t see that as an option,” Griffin, a Jamaica Plain resident, said of the possible failure of the takeover proposal, which still has no formal deals in place for the July 1 transition. “There are just too many [potential partners] that are committed.”

BCYF is planning the “transition” of eight of its 46 citywide facilities to private groups. It will continue to staff the local Curtis Hall and Hennigan centers.

The transition process is being blasted as secretive by various officials, including Kerry Costello, chair of the Jamaica Plain Community Centers board, a separate organization that actually operates local centers. Costello learned that English High is on the list from the Gazette rather than from BCYF.

Local state Rep. Liz Malia told the Gazette that it appears the city is “making these decisions arbitrarily, apparently arbitrarily, without input and still with no details.”

“What’s the plan?” Malia said, adding that while she trusts Griffin, “It doesn’t leave me with a good feeling that this is being dealt with above-board.”

Malia noted that Griffin served as executive director of the Blue Hill Boys and Girls Club prior to becoming the BCYF chief in 2007.

“I know she comes from the Boys and Girls Club, and maybe they know something we don’t,” Malia said. “Maybe the Boys and Girls Club will come in and take over, and that would be great…If we don’t know about it, we can’t help.”

In fact, Griffin told the Gazette, the Boys and Girls Club and Wheelock College are two organizations that have already expressed interest.

“Wheelock College is looking for a permanent site for ongoing programming, and it loves English [High] as that site,” said Colleen Keller, the JP Coordinator from the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services, at the April 27 meeting of the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council. She added that negotiations are continuing.

“It looks like a number of partners we have may be able to cover all of our [pull-out] sites…Hopefully, very soon, we have letters of intent [from them],” Griffin said.

But Malia sounded a note of caution, saying she has been involved in prior efforts to get private groups to work with community centers, “and we haven’t had any luck.” She noted the long campaign to get the YMCA to move into Egleston Square and then stay there through budget cycles.

Malia also broadly questioned the city’s targeting of libraries, community centers and schools during an apparent budget disaster.

“In a physical disaster, there’s triage,” Malia said. “It doesn’t seem to me there’s any crisis management going on here.”

Tobin has blasted Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration for targeting what he calls the “holy trilogy” of library, community center and school services in budget cuts.

If private-organization takeovers of some community centers are a good idea, the Gazette asked Griffin, why not do it at all of the centers?

“I really think it’s important for the city to have a community center presence in every neighborhood,” Griffin said, noting that BCYF centers are “very affordable” and serve a wide demographic.

But, she added, “We’re not the only game in town. I’ve said that before.” Private organizations do similar work, “and in some neighborhoods, they do a better job than us,” Griffin said, adding that BCYF now want to “embrace them rather than competing with them.”

No input

Griffin said that BCYF was unable to name specific community centers targeted for privatization until after the decision was made because the pull-out involves unionized employees who have to be told first.

“Each [local community center] council did receive a phone call the day of [the decision’s announcement],” Griffin said when asked how BCYF worked with affected groups during its decision-making. “We can’t notify them before our union.”

BCYF reportedly made no presentation to local community center boards or programs, and did not solicit input directly from them, even though some of those groups will now be asked to take over center operations. There was a presentation to the citywide community center board that oversees BCYF, but it included no details of specific centers targeted for transition, Griffin said.

BCYF held three community meetings to gather public input, but none of them were in JP, which is now the site of one-quarter of the pull-outs citywide.

Asked why there was no JP meeting, Griffin said, “At the time, we didn’t have the information” that JP centers were up for targeting. But with four community centers in total and a plan aimed at what BCYF called “oversaturated” neighborhoods, JP was an obvious target. Griffin herself previously noted to the Gazette that “you could basically throw a rock” across the small distance between the Agassiz and Curtis Hall community centers.

The nearest BCYF community meeting on the proposal was held in Roslindale and was “probably our less-attended public meeting,” Griffin said.

In fact, according to BCYF fact sheets about each center’s transition plan, “BCYF did not receive any feedback” about the Agassiz or English High centers at any of the community meetings.

Those two centers had more than 126,000 individual visitors in Fiscal Year 2009, according to BCYF data.

Asked if BCYF got enough public feedback at the community meetings, Griffin said there was a “wide range” of input.

It appears that the community meetings were also intended to be the one chance for groups that run center programs to be heard.

“It isn’t our fault that Kerry [Costello] did not go to the meetings,” Menino said of Costello’s complaints about lack of outreach in a recent Gazette interview.

Griffin said BCYF decided to pull out of the Agassiz and English Centers due to the relatively high density of community centers in JP and the number of private groups already using them that may be able to continue there.

Each of those centers has four BCYF employees. Griffin would not comment on specific center plans, again citing union rules. But in general, she said, BCYF staff pulled out of community centers will either be reassigned to bolster programs at other centers, or will be laid off.

As with the Boston Public Library’s recent, controversial plan to close some branch libraries, BCYF’s plan is pitched as both saving money through layoffs and improving the system’s quality.

“Instead of focusing on the number of [center] locations, we need to focus
on the programs we’re offering,” Griffin said.

The idea is for BCYF to focus on “youth development” programs as opposed to recreation.

“The question is, ‘How are [the centers] used and how will you use them?’” Menino said of that plan. “We want to make sure kids succeed.”

Griffin said that beefing up the staff at remaining centers will help that goal, as will new partnerships that BCYF may be able to handle as a result. She said that in JP specifically, there are some organizations that want to do more youth-related health programming.

“We will evaluate the programs as they go along,” Menino said of any privately run community centers, promising continued BCYF oversight.

BCYF’s plan was originally pitched as a “consolidation” of centers in “oversaturated” neighborhoods. BCYF now calls it a “transition.”

In a previous interview, the Gazette asked Griffin to confirm that some centers would be closed down and their services consolidated into surviving facilities, and she responded, “Some are.”

But Griffin clarified this week that outright closure was never the plan. She said that the plan is still a “consolidation” in the sense that it is “bringing together new partners” and shifting some staff members to other facilities.

It is also a “transition” in terms of the private takeovers, she said.

David Taber contributed to this article.