Community centers’ future a mystery

July 23, 2010
By

John Ruch

The city’s plans to privatize seven community centers—including two in Jamaica Plain—by July 1 appear to have failed, the Gazette has learned, leaving the centers’ fate a mystery and creating confusion about which ones are even open in the height of summer.

No private organizations have taken over any of the centers, even though the city’s Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) said that plan could not fail. At least two centers are essentially shuttered, even though BCYF said none would be. It appears that the only successful part of the plan has been the laying off of roughly 30 city-funded center employees.

BCYF has made no official announcement since the July 1 deadline and has not returned Gazette phone calls since then. An updated official list of city community centers on the BCYF web site has deleted all of the centers targeted for privatization, even some that remain open—including Jamaica Plain’s Agassiz
Community Center.

In JP, BCYF last month suddenly delayed its plans to privatize two of the four local community centers because one of them—Curtis Hall—will undergo massive renovations for a full year. But the long-term future of the centers remains a mystery.

Adding in the shifting of center staff after the lay-offs, JP’s centers are caught in a “never-ending perfect storm of craziness,” said Kerry Costello, chairperson of Jamaica Plain Community Centers (JPCC), the local non-profit organization that actual operates the local centers.

Costello said that the year-long delay in the plan to privatize local centers does not mean that everything is normal in the meantime.

“It’s not business as usual, that’s for sure,” she said in a Gazette phone interview this week. “It’s smoke and mirrors.”

“There was no plan,” Costello said of BCYF’s privatization proposal. And as for the long-term future of JP’s centers, “They haven’t said anything,” Costello said.

JP’s community centers include Curtis Hall and sites in the English High and Agassiz and Hennigan Elementary Schools. BCYF aimed to privatize the Agassiz and English sites.

Right now, Agassiz, Curtis and Hennigan remain open. English is closed for the summer for renovations. Curtis will close sometime in September for a year of renovations. Decisions about the long-term future will have to be made sometime before June 30, 2011, the end of the current fiscal year.

BCYF’s privatization plan was supposed to save money while improving services at the remaining city-staffed centers. The plan was announced in March and completed in about six weeks with virtually no input from the public or from local community center boards. BCYF documents show that the agency got absolutely no public feedback on the Agassiz and English centers—both of which host more than 50,000 individual visitors a year—before targeting them.

BCYF Executive Director Daphne Griffin, a JP resident, told the Gazette in April that there is no Plan B if the privatization plan fails. “I just don’t see that as an option,” Griffin said at the time. “There are just too many [potential partners] that are committed.”

Multiple sources, including City Councilor Chuck Turner, told the Gazette that no privatization deals are in place. The Thomas Johnson Community Center in Mission Hill reportedly had an organization willing to take over, but that group backed out.

“There are no identified [privatization] partners for English and Agassiz,” Costello said, adding that she is not surprised. She noted that JPCC funds such successful program as English’s Adult Learning Program—now relocated to the Agassiz—to the tune of $1 million a year.

“And this is how they treat us,” Costello said, referring to BCYF’s privatization plan and lack of input. “So they want to look for partners? Who would want to be partners with them?”

The city’s community centers are already operated and partly staffed by private non-profit councils such as JPCC. The city owns the centers and provides supervisory staff. The intent of the privatization deal is that other private organizations would take over staffing completely. There is also a citywide community centers board—Costello is a member of that as well—that works with BCYF.

JPCC is one of the strongest and best-funded of the community center councils. Costello said that BCYF clearly expected JPCC to simply take over much of the local centers’ staffing, even though union rules and liability issues prevented that.

As one example, Costello said, BCYF offered to keep a city youth worker at English, but still wanted to get rid of the supervisor position.

“When we told them we wouldn’t staff English, they started to panic because they had no plan,” Costello said.

Meanwhile, JPCC itself is “actively working with other groups to partner with us on additional youth programming,” Costello said.

In the early planning stages, BCYF indicated that its plan was to close and “consolidate” various community centers. But BCYF later clarified that its plan was a privatization that would keep all centers open.

“There won’t be any shuttered community centers,” BCYF spokesperson Sandy Holden told the Gazette in April.

But Dorchester’s Marshall Community Center and Mattapan’s Mattahunt Community Center both closed after July 1, according to Turner and other sources. No one answered the phone at those centers when the Gazette called last Friday, while staff members did answer the phone at other community centers. A day-care program was still using the Marshall facility earlier this month, according to the Dorchester Reporter, but all other programs were gone.

Mission Hill’s Johnson Center is in limbo. It is technically still open as a hang-out spot, with two top staff members in place through September, apparently while BCYF tries to figure what to do. But all organized programming has been suspended as volunteers there remain unsure about its future.

Meanwhile, all seven community centers targeted for privatization, whether they are open or not, have been deleted from the BCYF web site list of centers at CityofBoston.gov/BCYF. Another community center list elsewhere on the web site includes more centers, but still does not list all of them.

Costello said that her understanding always was that some centers would close, adding that JPCC was willing to shutter the Agassiz Center. In fact, she said, she would prefer to see the Agassiz close rather than the Marshall, noting the high rates of youth violence in that area of Dorchester.

“I’m tired of seeing the mayor showing up at [young people’s] funerals and weeping and wailing with the families, and then [doing] stuff like this,” Costello said of the Marshall’s shutdown.

Most of the local community centers programs are still operating in some form, either by shifting to the Agassiz and Hennigan, or moving to Roslindale centers. A Curtis Hall preschool program will have to close for a year because licensing issues do not allow it to move, Costello said.

Such moves mean the programs aren’t ideal, and that JPCC will see a financial impact, Costello said.

“We’re going to lose a lot of revenue,” particularly with Curtis and English being closed for renovations, Costello said. She said that JPCC had budgeted for the long-planned Curtis Hall renovation, but not for the English renovation and privatization plan, which was “done at the last minute with no input from us.”

JPCC already had its budget completed when BCYF announced the privatization targets in April, requiring a high-speed re-budgeting, Costello said.

JPCC has been participating in “transition team” meetings with BCYF about the privatization plan, which include Holden and other BYCF officials, Costello said. She said it is unclear whether other community center councils are receiving similar meetings, and that not much information comes out of them in any case.

The meetings began only after the April privatization announcement that, to JPCC’s surprise, included English.

“We’re supposed to be at the table after we were on the table,” Costello said of the decision-making process.

For more information on JP’s community centers, contact JPCC at 635-5195 or see www.JPCommunityCenters.com.