Student assignment panel’s plan expected in early February

By 
Gintautas Dumcius, News Editor
Jan. 9, 2013

The advisory group charged with vetting a new student assignment plan is near the finish line, from which they will hand off their proposal to Superintendent Carol Johnson and a School Committee with new leadership.

The 27-member group, known as the External Advisory Committee on School Choice, will likely deliberate and vote on a final plan during the first week of February, which means they’ll be blowing past a deadline set for them by Mayor Thomas Menino in his 2012 State of the City address when he said that the city would have a new student assignment system by mid-January in 2013. His State of the City address this year is set for Jan. 29.

In that 2012 address, Menino called for a new system that would allow students to go to schools closer to home, creating a better sense of community and cutting back on a transportation bill that could eventually climb to $100 million a year. The current system divides the city into three zones and calls for busing children across the zones.

The advisory group, headed by Boston University’s Dean Hardin Coleman and former School Committee member Helen Dajer, got off to a late start, taking about two months to get up and running. And the members have been flooded with data from the school department and proposals from academics, elected officials, and parents looking for a change in the current system.

Coleman said they are aiming for an assignment plan that will stand the test of time. “We hope this plan is responsive to changing school quality and demographics without having to redo the whole system,” he said.

After it vets a model, the group is expected to forward it onto Superintendent Johnson, who will take it to the seven-member School Committee, which elected a new chair this week, Charlestown resident Michael O’Neill. Menino appointed O’Neill to a second term on the committee days earlier, swearing him in at the Parkman House on Beacon Hill. Longtime committee member Alfreda Harris was tapped to be vice chair.

O’Neill, senior vice president of marketing at Savings Bank Life Insurance of Massachusetts, succeeds the Rev. Gregory Groover, who passed on a third term as chair but will remain on the panel.

In a column that is frequently sent out to local newspapers, Menino said the school assignment overhaul is in the “home stretch,” noting that the school department has posted data on its website, along with testimony from residents and others with ideas for how to improve the system. “Families living in today’s East Zone, for example, have lower chances of attending a high-quality school than those in the North or West Zones,” Menino wrote. “By improving the school assignment system and investing in quality, we can create a system that offers more of what families need.”

The school assignment advisory group’s next scheduled meetings are set for next Monday (Jan. 14) and Wed., Jan. 23.

More information on the school assignment overhaul is available at the school department’s website, bostonschoolchoice.org.