(UPDATED) Menino asks advisory panel to delay vote on school assignment plan

Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Feb. 5, 2013

Mayor Thomas Menino on Tuesday asked for the advisory panel eyeing a school assignment overhaul to again delay their vote, scheduled for Saturday, and wrap up their work by before the end of the month.

“I ask that you continue your work past this weekend,” Menino wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Reporter. The advisory panel had aimed for a December vote, and that was pushed back into January, and then to this weekend.

“I also ask that you complete your work before the end of this month so that we can move forward in improving school choice for our students,” Menino said in his letter. “You have helped build a broad consensus that our current system must change.”

Menino noted that there have been 70 public meetings on revamping school assignment.

Menino’s letter came a day after a dozen elected officials of color signed their own letter asking for a delay. The lawmakers, from both Beacon Hill and City Hall, said more time is necessary to process the three proposals before a vote to send a plan to the School Committee. “We have heard from constituents, stakeholders and most importantly families about their need for more time to review and understand the most recent plans,” the elected officials wrote. “We respectfully ask for an extension in your final recommendation to the school committee to accommodate this.”

The signers of the letter included Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins; state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education; state Reps. Carlos Henriquez, Russell Holmes, Gloria Fox, Linda Dorcena Forry, Byron Rushing and Jeffrey Sanchez; and Councillors Felix Arroyo, Charles Yancey, Ayanna Pressley, and Tito Jackson. At least one fellow lawmaker, state Rep. Ed Coppinger of West Roxbury, appeared miffed that he wasn’t asked to sign onto the letter, taking to Twitter to express his displeasure.

The elected officials' letter was released as a community meeting on the three proposals got underway. Menino launched the process over a year ago, declaring that he wanted to shift from the current 3-zone model to neighborhood schools in order to build a sense of community.

School officials have proposed three models – a 10-zone model and two no-zone models – as the 27-member advisory panel inches toward the finish line and a vote on a final proposal.

When asked about the Feb. 9 vote and calls for a delay, Helen Dajer, who co-chairs the panel with Boston University’s Dean Hardin Coleman, said on Monday night, “Our plan is to vote. It’s not etched in stone. It’s a plan. Our plan is to move this along.”

Dajer added that the advisory panel had already postponed the vote from December. “Waiting for high quality in every school before coming up with a new plan means postponing it forever, which accomplishes nothing,” she said.

Dajer referred to a past attempt to reform the school assignment system that ran into issues due to fierce debates over access to quality schools. “It stopped us 9 years ago,” said Dajer, who was a member of the 2004 task force. “Now there’s a lot of quality -- far from perfect.”

But concerns about access to quality schools under the proposed plans dominated the questions from the roughly 200 parents who packed the Orchard Gardens K-8 School auditorium on Monday night. In the early portion of the meeting, school department officials fielded questions via note cards, one of which asked them to show evidence of success and then propose an overhaul.

Tim Nicolette, Superintendent Carol Johnson’s chief of staff, pointed to the school system’s shift to a funding formula tied closely to students and improvements at so-called “turnaround schools.” Nicolette also noted Menino’s pledge in his State of the City last week to invest $30 million for underperforming schools.

But others asked for more time to analyze the proposals, which were released last month. “To say $30 million is going to fix it, it’s not,” said District 7 Councillor Jackson, who represents Roxbury and Dorchester.

Mariama White-Hammond, a Dorchester resident, also supported a delay. “I’m still digesting,” despite her husband, Rahn Dorsey, being an advisory panel member, she said.

“Right now, a bunch of kids go to bad schools,” she said. “There needs to be an ongoing way to get people into a conversation about quality.”

Superintendent Johnson said the outreach to the community has been happening for a year and the advisory panel is a “representative body” of constituent groups in Boston. “I don’t think the community process ends on Saturday,” she said.

Near the end of the meeting, which stretched to 8:30 p.m., Johnson addressed the crowd. “You have every right to push us…to be better than we are,” she said.

The advisory panel was scheduled to meet at Suffolk University on Tuesday night at 7 p.m. and on Thursday night at 6 p.m.

Michael O’Neill, chair of the School Committee, also attended the meeting. “I’m here to look, listen and learn,” he said, deferring to the advisory panel.

The panel is taking a “thoughtful, deliberative” approach, he added. “They’re not rushing anything.”

This article was updated at 7:27 p.m. Tuesday with Mayor Menino's letter.