School Committee questions cuts

Panel members seek more data on closing plans

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / December 9, 2010

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A week before the Boston School Committee is to vote on a controversial proposal to close or merge more than a dozen schools, its members raised a range of questions last night and requested additional data, but did not indicate how they might vote.

The committee’s chairman, the Rev. Gregory Groover, stressed to the hundreds of parents, teachers, students, and community activists who packed the auditorium at English High School that the committee is carefully evaluating the proposal Superintendent Carol R. Johnson officially presented to them just a week ago.

“We want to make clear to parents we are asking questions because there are no done deals on the vote,’’ Groover said.

Johnson is seeking to downsize the school district as part of a plan to remedy a potential $63 million shortfall for the next school year, a bleak financial picture that is expected to confront the district for the next few years.

The proposal, wider in scope than one she originally presented in October and then withdrew, has sparked spirited campaigns among the affected parents, students, and staffs to keep their schools open.

Throughout last night’s meeting, scores of attendees held signs advocating for the preservation of their school.

“I know this is a very difficult and painful set of recommendations,’’ Johnson said.

In asking questions, committee members often said they were reflecting concerns from the affected schools, and sometimes the questions offered glimpses of areas where committee members potentially hold reservations.

Members John Barros and Mary Tamer drilled down on a recommendation to close the Emerson Elementary School in Roxbury and transfer its specialized English-language-learning program for Cape Verdean students to the King K-8 School, located in a section of Roxbury where violence has been a concern.

“I’d like to know the stats about what’s happening around the King School, so we can assure parents their children will be safe,’’ Barros said.

When a district administrator said that Boston police had that information, Barros immediately requested that Johnson get that data to the committee next week. It was one of several data requests made by Barros.

Committee member Michael O’Neill appeared to have concerns about losing good academic opportunities for students through the consolidation of four high schools into two entities at the West Roxbury complex and the merger of two small high schools at the South Boston complex.

“We want to make sure some of the shining stars we have don’t lose their magic,’’ O’Neill said.

Irvin Scott, the district’s chief academic officer, tried to assure him that the schools and the district would work to preserve the successful elements during the mergers.

Among a long series of questions from Committee member Claudio Martinez was one about how the closing of Jamaica Plain’s Agassiz Elementary School would affect the large number of students learning to speak English there.

“Will they end up in general education classes with substantially less services?’’ he asked.

Eileen de los Reyes, assistant superintendent for English language learners, said the district would like to move those students as groups and, if possible, move them with their teachers to a different school.

With more than a hundred people signed up for public comments, the meeting went well into the night.

Ruth Bodian — the mother of two students at Urban Science Academy, a high school in West Roxbury recently recognized by the state for academic excellence — was baffled that Johnson would want to merge the school as a budget-cutting measure.

“If it’s not broke, why fix it?’’ she asked.

Benvinda Timas, an Emerson School teacher, gave an impassioned speech about the district’s attempt to fill empty classroom seats across the district by closing some well-cherished schools, comparing the process to consolidating a grocery store chain.

“Our students are not sacks of potatoes or cans of goods that can be placed on shelves just because there are spaces,’’ Timas said.

“They are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and dignity like all children. They deserve the equal chance and opportunity to have a successful future.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at