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Community center reforms require better planning

Details of Mayor Tom Menino’s budget for the next fiscal year are just coming to light as the Reporter goes to press this week. But an early glimpse at a summary of his $2.4 billion plan indicates that the city’s budget woes are easing a bit and that plans to close branch libraries— including the one in Lower Mills— are off the table. That’s very good news.

The mayor’s budget also sticks to the strategy of pulling city employees out of several community centers now operated by the Boston Center for Youth and Families. The Menino administration began this process last year by withdrawing staff from eight centers — including Mattapan’s Mattahunt center and the Marshall center in Dorchester. The new budget would replicate this withdrawal at several other centers citywide, none of which are in Mattapan and Dorchester. It would also convert the Madison Park Community Center into a “recreation hub” for citywide use.

“This budget continues the work of transforming and strengthening our schools and community centers, focusing not on the number of physical buildings they occupy but what goes on in them,” Mayor Menino said in a statement issued yesterday.

There is some merit to this strategy. An investigative review published by the Reporter in conjunction with a team of reporters from Northeastern University’s Watchdog New England program found that many of the 38 city-owned community centers are not living up to their promise under current management. While some facilities are vibrant, busy places for families to enjoy, others are often empty and without a steady churn of programs.

There is an urgent need for reform of this system and the city’s proposal to team up with non-profit partners to manage and program these facilities holds great promise. In Mattapan, the city has contracted with Wheelock College, which has undertaken an aggressive planning process with a task force of Mattapan residents to create a five-year programming plan for the Mattahunt. The findings of their process, which has included an intensive survey of local residents, will be released at a meeting tonight (April 14) at the community center.

Finding a partner like Wheelock College that is willing to devote time and resources to a community center in Mattapan is a positive step in the right direction. There are questions that need to be answered by city officials, however, about the overall strategy for reforming the community center system. What are the criteria being used to select centers for such changes? How is the city selecting non-profit partners like Wheelock? The most critical open question in our view is a loose end from last year’s withdrawals: How will the city ensure that there is a smooth transition during the time between the elimination of city staff and engagement with non-profit partners? So far, nearly a year of programming has been lost in the transition at the Mattahunt. And it is less clear exactly what is happening at some of the other centers, like the Marshall, where there has been no public process around choosing a replacement partner.

These outstanding questions should be more fully explained in the upcoming weeks before the mayor and the City Council resolve the next fiscal year’s budget. Reforms are needed and welcome, but they must be properly laid out and explained to the city as a whole before becoming firm policy.

– Bill Forry