Yancey: School Department gets plush new offices, while high-school students get 'substandard' buildings

Dorotea Manuela explains why she wants a high school in Mattapan.

City Councilor Charles Yancey has a new tactic in his long-running battle to get a high school built in Mattapan: Blasting the city's plan - which he voted for - to spend $115 million moving BPS headquarters from Court Street downtown to the old Ferdinand building in Dudley Square, when nearly 4,000 high-school students attend classes in "substandard" buildings originally built for elementary students or as warehouses.

At a hearing tonight, Yancey asked for the city to borrow $110 million to build a high school on a college-like 15-acre campus on the grounds of the former Boston State Hospital. Students and their parents have waited long enough for a modern high school like the ones that have sprung up in surrounding suburbs, he said.

Yancey gained support from councilors at-large Councilor Felix Arroyo and Roxbury Councilor Tito Jackson.

But Allston/Brighton Councilor Mark Ciommo said he couldn't support building a new high school when existing schools - including Brighton High in his district - already have their own pressing issues. Ciommo said he is worried the costs of a new high school would take away from the capital budget for all the other schools in the district and that it just wouldn't be prudent to add a new high school when projections show BPS continuing to lose students.

Deputy School Superintendent Michael Goar, while taking no position on Yancey's proposal for a brand new building, said BPS is getting ready to pour significant amounts of money into renovation projects at the Quincy and Dearborn 6-12 schools.

Not a single School Committee member attended the hearing - similar to a recent council hearing on raising the dropout age from 16 to 18. School Superintendent Carol Johnson did not attend because she was attending to the birth of a grandchild.

Even as he repeatedly raised the headquarters relocation, Yancey also continued to base much of his argument on a 1996 blue-ribbon report that called for two new high schools in Boston. He said students and parents have waited and watched as the city spent hundreds of millions on the Democratic National Convention, a new police headquarters, a convention center, a new Suffolk County jail, new police districts and the Big Dig and yet they get nothing while the city prepares to spend money "creating those comfortable office spaces for the School Department."

Goar, however, said Yancey needs to realize that it's not like BPS just pushes students into closets, that it renovates buildings before it moves students in. Ciommo noted the city has plans for savings and new revenue to pay for the Ferdinand project - consolidating other city agencies in Court Street and moving the Fire Department headquarters to an existing city building in Newmarket Square and selling off the BFD building - which would not be available for a new high school.

Yancey retorted it's all a matter of priorities and that after 28 years on the council, he knows how to raise funds creatively to pay for a new school. "I know if there was a priority, we can make it happen," just like the mayor figured out how to pay for a convention center, he said. He said enrollment is declining at the elementary level, not the high school level.

Yancey pointed to the Boston Arts Academy in the Fenway, New Mission High School in Roxbury and the Greater Egleston Community High School as examples of "substandard" buildings Boston should be ashamed of - in contrast to a state-of-the-art building next to the Audubon Society nature preserve and near the state lab in Jamaica Plain, which he said could provide valuable new forms of learning.

Dorotea Manuela of Dorchester, who volunteers at New Mission, said she gets depressed every time she enters the "disgusting" building, which has no gym or library or cafeteria. Mattapan deserves a new state-of-the-art school both for the students and to help it overcome negative stereotypes perpetuated by the media about Mattapan, Dorchester and Roxbury, she said.

"It is time that not just Boston and Massachusetts but the rest of the country know that we have gems in our community," she said. "We have beautiful, gifted children. ... How disrespectful and how disgusting it is to expect children to come to the dilapidated buildings that exist right now and expect them not to be depressed."

One Roslindale resident, however, said she was bothered by Yancey's continuing reliance on a study released in 1996 - and noted that Roslindale doesn't have a high school, either.

Patrice Bennett, who now lives in Mattapan, said a Mattapan high school would provide a new center around which the community could rally - she said she and other residents would actively work on school projects because "this is our city and we care about it."