Busing's future on the line in May meetings

For the second time in five years, Boston parents will have a chance to speak out on how to change the student assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. But the series of five community meetings next month takes place amid dramatic changes in everything from enrollment size and the school budget to the mix of students and the definition of quality education.

Parents and officials are also revisiting the assignment question under increasing pressure to make trade-offs, especially in money for transportation versus money for teachers. Mayor Thomas Menino set that tone more than one year ago in a State of the City Address at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester. A little more than a year later, at a budget presentation in February, Supterintendent Dr. Carol Johnson was even more explicit.

“We can no longer afford to spend more than $70 million on yellow bus transportation,” she said, “particularly when those costs require us to lay off good teachers.”

Thanks to federal stimulus money, additional city funding, and some more cost-saving, the number of teachers and teacher aides that could be laid off in the next fiscal year is down to 212. But officials are still pushing ahead, with an eye toward savings in transportation over the longer term.

In a budget report on March 25, Johnson estimated a transportation savings over the coming year of $3.4 million. The savings would come from a number of changes, including school closings and consolidations, reducing the number of bus stops, a change in assignments for special education students, and deferring the contract settlement with the busing contractor, First Student, Inc. Citing legal restrictions, officials backed off from cutting back on busing for students at Boston’s private and parochial schools.

While Mayor Menino hopes to ease the budget pressure by gaining support for a wage freeze from the Boston Teachers Union, the assignment plan will also affect the union representing school bus drivers, United Steel Workers, Local 8751. And the line between the bus drivers union and city officials is more sharply drawn. The drivers oppose the call for wage freeze, and they denounced a preliminary draft of a new assignment plan as a racist attack on desegregation despite the fact that by law, schools can no longer base their admissions on race.

In February, Johnson opened discussion on a plan that would increase the number of assignment zones from three to five. The plan would require less busing, but it would also offer fewer choices for school assignments.

An analysis of the plan by the School Dept. showed the five-zone map had some problems. In some zones there was a shortage of seats at certain grades levels, especially for middle school grades in Districts 4 (Dorchester and South Boston) and 3 (Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, South End). The new map also had more imbalances in the concentration of underperforming schools (with the highest concentration in zones that include Dorchester) and the percentage of students in poverty.

The bus drivers union said the plan would “illegally deny access to educational opportunities for Boston’s communities of color.” Parents and advocates have also raised concerns about how the plan would affect access to special options, such as advanced work classes and programs for English Language Learners (ELL’s).

The meetings on the assignment plan follow a new report by the Mauricio Gastón Institute at UMass, Boston that shows increasing problems for ELL’s, including a higher dropout rate. Annual figures released last week by the state Dept. of Education show the highest dropout rate in Boston last year was for Hispanic students (at 10.2 percent), who have overtaken black students as the school system’s largest population group. Johnson has already responded by opening a special school in Dorchester for newly arrived immigrants and expanding capacity next year at a high school for immigrant students by almost 60 percent.

Before the neighborhood meetings begin May 7, Johnson will present a draft assignment plan with revisions. What officials have already argued is that most parents prefer to send their children to schools close to where they live. For the current school year, according to official figures, 72.5 percent of all parents in the first assignment round chose elementary or K-8 schools within a radius of three miles.

Supporters of a reduction in transportation point to the number of empty seats on buses and the overall decline in enrollment, which has fallen by about 10 percent since 2003. And the Boston Finance Commission even argues that some parents faced with a choice of comparable schools would prefer an assignment that is further away, and thus provides busing.

“I’m anxious to see what a revised five-zone plan will look like,” said the chair of the City Council Committee on Education, John Connolly. “I’m going to support it, not knowing what it looks like, because it’s a step in the right direction.”

But the deputy director for Boston school reform at Mass. Advocates for Children, Kim Janey, says parents want access to quality schools. She calls the concentration of underperforming schools in communities of color “problematic.”

“With the five-zone map, if you limit choice, you have less access,” said Janey. “The bottom line is there are just too many low-performing schools. “We need more quality throughout the district.”
Connolly argues that the way to increase access to quality schools and programs is to shift money currently spent on transportation.

“I think we have this sort of non-sequitur that the current assignment plan raises equity,” said Connolly. “If we truly focus on how to improve the underperforming schools, we will arrive at the conclusion that we had to change the transportation policy.”

Though the superintendent’s budget plan calls for measures to improve under-performing schools, Janey says parents will need to know how a new assignment plan would affect the particular needs of their children.

“I don’t know that families are being informed in that level of detail,” said Janey. “I think the district, the Boston Public Schools, “should work to inform families about what they’re losing in terms of access, and what they stand to gain.”

As envisioned in Mayor Menino’s State of the City address of January 2008, the gain would be a neighborhood-based alignment serving students with a full day of school and community services—the “next Boston miracle.” But the next steps toward the miracle will be taken with a school budget being reduced from this year’s figure by 2.5 percent.

When school desegregation began in Boston, in 1974, neighborhood populations were more sharply divided by race. Thirty-five years later, the school system faces growing competition from charter schools—often attracting students of color. But the system, Connolly notes, continues to attract middle-class parents across racial lines who often prefer elementary or K-8 schools close to where they live.

“One thing I know, based on all the policy I read,” he said, “is you need middle-class investment in a school system to make it work for all students. And we need a way to talk about that.”

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The series of meetings will begin Wednesday, April 29, with the presentation of a revised assignment plan with five zones. The meeting will take place at 26 Court Street in downtown Boston, in the Winter Chambers. All meetings will begin at 6 p.m. The remaining meetings are as follows:
Thursday, May 7, Umana Middle School Academy, 312 Border St., East Boston.
Tuesday, May 12, Edison Middle School, 60 Glenmount Road, Brighton.
Monday, May 18, Lewis Middle School. 131 Walnut Ave., Roxbury.
Wednesday, May 20, McCormack Middle School, 315 Mt. Vernon St., Dorchester.
Tuesday, May 26, Irving Middle School, 105 Cummins Hwy., Roslindale.
Wednesday, June 3, BPS, 26 Court St.,Winter Chambers (recommendations by superintendent).
Wednesday, June 24, BPS, 26 Court Street,Winter Chambers (vote by School Committee).