City to pull out of 2 community centers

John Ruch

Other groups might take over

The Agassiz and English High community centers will be given up by the city and possibly turned over to other groups to run as part of a citywide consolidation plan, the city’s Boston Centers for Youth & Families (BCYF) announced this week.

“There won’t be any shuttered community centers,” BCYF spokesperson Sandy Holden told the Gazette, referring to plans for new groups to take over as of July 1. But, Holden acknowledged, not all of those deals are in place yet.

That is also a change in strategy since last month, when BCYF Executive Director Daphne Griffin told the Gazette that some centers would be closed and their programs “consolidated” with surviving centers.

Community centers already operate under a form of non-profit partnership with local, independent community boards. But that relationship “just doesn’t fit my definition of partnership” anymore, said Kerry Costello, chair of the Jamaica Plain Community Centers (JPCC) board.

In part, that is because JPCC was never asked for input of any kind about the community centers “transition” plan, said Costello—and she first heard the full list of centers targeted in the plan from the Gazette, not from BCYF.

“English?! That’s a news flash to me,” Costello said when informed that the English High center is up for “transition.” She said that center is home to some crucial programming.

Costello said BCYF only recently asked to meet with the JPCC board—“after the fact of everything”—and noted the agency held only three community meetings about the reorganization, none of them in JP.

“That’s our community input, it appears,” she said.

“Partnership is probably not the word” for the BCYF/JPCC relationship, Costello said. “Yet it’s not a dictatorship. It’s something in between.” That is especially true, she said, when “you talk to a reporter and find out English [community center] is on a list.”

BCYF will continue to operate two other Jamaica Plain community centers: Curtis Hall on South Street and one in the Hennigan School on Heath Street. All four JP community centers are heavily used and among the city’s busiest, with more than 350,000 individual visitors last year, according to BCYF statistics obtained by the Gazette.

BCYF is proposing similar city pull-outs at six other community centers and sports facilities in other neighborhoods. The idea is to save money and offer better services by reducing staffing and trimming the current 46-center system.

“Our staffing remains thin across our network of sites and many sites are under[-]utilized as a result,” wrote Griffin in an April 13 letter to the Boston City Council.

Griffin wrote that the plan is a “transition of the operation of these [eight citywide] sites to other community and non-profit partners.”

She also wrote that BCYF traditionally has focused on “recreational aspects—so-called ‘gym and swim’—which have dwarfed enrichment components.” In the future, “BCYF will prioritize the youth development mission of the agency,” she wrote.

“It’s taking me a bit by surprise, just the amount in Jamaica Plain,” local City Councilor John Tobin said of the “transition” of half of JP’s community centers.

Tobin noted that if other organizations are supposed to take over the heavily used centers, they will require more city and state funds.

“If you want not-for-profits to pick up the slack, you’ve got to give them some help,” he said.

Holden said the eight facilities targeted for “transition” were chosen in part because many of them already have non-profits or other organizations involved in their operations.

With the centers based in schools—including the Agassiz and English High—“the hope is” that the potential partner organizations “will just broker deals with the schools” to keep them open, Holden said.

But it is unclear how solid those partnerships are, and whether it will involve changes in the current programming at the centers.

“Some [partnerships] are in place, but we’re not at the point yet of sharing a big list,” Holden said.

A key piece of data in BCYF’s decision-making was attendance counts for each facility. That data shows that the Hennigan Community Center in the Hennigan Elementary School is the city’s 6th busiest facility on the list, with 112,573 individual visits in Fiscal Year 2009.

The Curtis Hall Community Center at 20 South St. is number 7 with 110,782 visits. The English High Community Center in the school at 144 McBride St. is number 15 with 72,757 visits. The Agassiz Community Center in the school at 20 Child St. is number 19 with 53,478 visits.

Those raw numbers are not adjusted for the size of the centers. The numbers are also certainly undercounts, because they are based on sign-in sheets that some visitors ignore.

Mayor Thomas Menino’s administration is also proposing the closures of some branch libraries and possibly some public schools. Tobin said he is concerned the city is “messing around with what I call the holy triology” of youth and family services.

“There’s nothing that says the budget has to be wrapped up by June 30th” at the end of the fiscal year, Tobin said, referring to the City Council’s ability to hold up the budget if it has questions or concerns. Tobin and several other councilors already have vowed to vote against any budget containing branch library cuts. “It’s too early to tell” if the budget will be held up, Tobin said, but added that the community center issue will get close scrutiny.

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