Above: Joe Rowland of BNN-TV's Neighborhood Network News reports.
As a frequently raucous crowd of parents and teachers jeered them, the Boston School Committee late Wednesday voted 7-0 to approve a controversial plan to shutter nine schools, including Dorchester’s Fifield Elementary School, East Zone Early Learning Center and Middle School Academy.
The plan, put forth by Superintendent Carol Johnson, also includes merging Lee Academy Pilot School with Lee Elementary School, which share the same building; moving Dorchester Academy from the Dorchester Education Complex to another building; turning TechBoston Academy into a unified Grade 6 through 12 program at the Dorchester Education Complex; and adding classes to the Holland and Trotter Elementary Schools.
Clap Elementary School, originally slated for closure, instead will be converted into an “innovation school,” operating similarly to a charter school and providing more administrative flexibility.
“This is just the beginning,” Rev. Gregory Groover, chairman of the mayorally-appointed school committee said just before the vote, pointing to the weak economy that has devastated state and local budgets.
Still on the agenda for the coming year: Working on reforming the teachers’ contract, redistricting school zones, and cutting back on the city’s $300,000-per-school-day transportation budget.
The school district is facing a $63 million budget deficit and 5,600 vacant seats in its buildings, along with market pressures from the growth of charter schools.
The closures and mergers are expected to save $10.6 million, according to school department officials. Schools from East Boston, Mission Hill and Hyde Park are also on the chopping block .
School committee members faced the crowd while on the stage of English High School’s auditorium, as several police officers stood below them and shouts from angry parents rang out during the meeting.
Committee member Michael O’Neill, before his vote, said state and federal assistance, which bailed out the school department’s budget last year, does not appear to be coming again. And Gov. Deval Patrick’s budget chief said this week he expects a $1.5 billion budget gap in the 2012 fiscal year.
Fellow member John Barros said he had questions about the proposal and did not agree with all aspects, but would support the “overall” plan because the alternative is deep cuts across the board, instead of targeted ones.
“This decision puts Boston Public Schools on a path that ensures Boston’s families have access to high-quality programs, no matter where they live in our city,” Johnson said in a statement released after the vote. “We acknowledge that this is not an easy process, but we will be working over the next year to make this as seamless as possible for all students and their families.”
Asked if the school committee will face a similar situation next year and again be forced to closed schools, Groover told the Reporter, “We are committed to eliminating every single empty seat.” He noted that the plan the committee approved Wednesday night takes care of 25 percent of the 5,600 seats that are currently empty.
Before the vote, the committee was barraged with criticism from an angry crowd, which frequently broke out into chants of “save our schools” and “no vote.” As committee members attempted to explain their votes, audience members lashed out at them, interrupting and labeling them “sellouts” and “cowards.”
Some in the crowd also aimed their ire at Mayor Thomas Menino, with one sign reading, “Menino Might As Well Be the Grinch.”
“Everybody except the mayor is here,” said Ann Walsh, one of the parents lobbying to keep Lee Academy open.
“I had to do this with my library and now I’m having to do it with my school,” she said, referring to the proposal to close the Lower Mills branch library. Library officials shifted their tone earlier this year and offered to keep the library open if funding is found.
Richard Stutman, head of the Boston Teachers’ Union, called the plan “ill-conceived.” “You are closing schools that work,” he told the school committee.
Local elected officials such as City Councillors Felix Arroyo, Matt O’Malley, Charles Yancey, and state Reps.-elect Carlos Henriquez and Russell Holmes also attended the committee meeting.
Arroyo called for a delay in the vote. “The short time frame in which a decision of this magnitude has been made, assuming that the vote is held today, has made it impossible to include the students, parents, teachers, administrators and residents affected by this decision in a meaningful way,” he said.
Henriquez agreed, saying “That’s why you have the anger.”
Marchelle Raynor, vice chair on the board and a member since 1999, said she had previously voted to close her great grand-daughter’s school and defended her Wednesday night vote. “You know what, there is life after closing,” she said.