Community centers face closures

John Ruch

Local community centers may be joining branch libraries on the chopping block, as city officials announced earlier this month that some centers will be closed as part of a sweeping overhaul to improve the system.

“We will have a community center in every neighborhood,” Mayor Thomas Menino
said in a March 4 speech at a Boston Municipal Research Bureau lunch, according to the city’s web site. “But as we look ahead, we may have to consolidate some under-utilized facilities so we can deploy more people in direct service positions and mentoring roles to our children.”

Menino did not specify any particular facilities for closure. Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF), a city agency, operates 46 community centers citywide. Jamaica Plain’s centers are at Curtis Hall and in the Agassiz, English High and Hennigan public schools.

BCYF Executive Director Daphne Griffin, in her first interview about the plan, confirmed to the Gazette that some community centers will be closed and consolidated.

But, she said, that will happen only after community meetings this month that will examine the city’s 46 centers in “not just quantitative, but qualitative” terms. [See JP Agenda.]

The basic quantitative part is attendance numbers for all of the centers. Griffin told the Gazette two weeks ago that BCYF has attendance records and agreed to provide them to the Gazette. But the Gazette has not received the data.

Griffin is a JP resident who knows the local community centers well. She declined to make general comments about them, except to note that the Curtis Hall and Agassiz centers are close to each other: “You could basically throw a rock” from one to the other, she said.

In a recent letter from Griffin to the Boston City Council obtained by the Gazette, Griffin that BCYF has “identified opportunities to…eliminate duplication and under-utilization….”

“Our staffing remains thin across our network of sites and many sites are under utilized [sic] as a result,” Griffin wrote.

That means that some centers don’t have the proper staff to meet minimum management requirements, Griffin told the Gazette. Also, some centers are in Boston Public Schools that are served by non-profit agencies with similar programs, she said.

While BCYF is planning a community process about its centers, “some are” definitely going to close and be consolidated with other centers, Griffin confirmed to the Gazette.

Asked by the Gazette which centers are under-utilized, Griffin said, “I can’t answer that right now. We’re pulling the criteria together.”

But, she explained, BCYF does know which centers appear to be under-utilized on paper, in terms of visitor numbers. She said BYCF will provide the Gazette with a full list of recent visitor numbers for all community centers.

Griffin added that visitor numbers will not be the only criterion for deciding on closures. Along with public meetings, there will be other forms of outreach, including the BCYF web site.

Griffin said BCYF will ask residents, “What works well, what doesn’t work well, and what do we need to add?”

She indicated that the meetings will not include specific closure proposals, instead being focused on “shar[ing] criteria” for making decisions. “We do have [a record of] numbers of visitations,” she said, but it is unclear whether those would be presented.

Geography likely will be another criterion. She noted that BCYF currently has about one community center per square mile, in terms of abstract numbers. “We have some neighborhoods that are oversaturated,” she said.

Asked whether three community meetings will be enough to address the needs of 46 community centers, Griffin said, “Certainly, if we need to schedule more [meetings], we will.”

Closure and consolidation of some community centers “could be reflected in the budget for next fiscal year,” wrote Jordan Ablon, an attorney for the city’s Office of Labor Relations, in a letter to the BCYF’s employees union obtained by the Gazette. The letter also described a “multi-year process” for reviewing BCYF’s programming.

BCYF’s process will include coordination with Boston Public Schools planning, and possibly with the BPL branch planning as well, Griffin said. The Curtis Hall community center is right next to the JP Branch Library. BCYF’s headquarters is in Mission Hill’s Tobin Community Center and school, which is also next door to a branch library.

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