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‘We’re kicking the can down the road’: Critics say BPS is slow-walking decisions on school closures

“We’re kicking the can down the road for another year,” said City Councilor Liz Breadon at a meeting Thursday where she and other councilors questioned Superintendent Mary Skipper’s tentative approach to closures.

”The number of buildings we have . . . is preventing our ability to scale resources to schools,” added council President Ruthzee Louijeune.

In the last decade, Boston Public Schools has lost more than 8,000 students, or 14 percent of its enrollment, but it has not reduced seat capacity at the same pace. That’s a problem because school funding is tied to head count. As a result, BPS spends tens of millions each year to keep the lights on at schools with fewer students, rather than, say, investing inprograms that would enrich the student experience — a practice that even district leaders admit is unsustainable.

Students in underenrolled schools pay the price of those policies, particularly at the secondary level, where inequities are most apparent. High schools that have open enrollment but fewer students tend to offer fewer electives, advanced courses, and sports teams than large, well-attended exam schools. They’re also disproportionately populated by students with disabilities and other needs, which puts an additional strain on their ability to serve all students well.

Of 119 BPS schools, 42 have enrollment below 85 percent. The district’s own facilities plan suggests closing anywhere from 14 to 59 schools.

So far, BPS is resisting calls to release a comprehensive multiyear plan that sets out a rationale and timeline for closing or consolidating particular schools. Skipper said the district will only introduce new proposals on an annual basis — a strategy critics worry will erode community trust and sow turmoil.

“A year-by-year approach doesn’t tell Boston families what they can expect and where they should consider for their children’s education,” said Marty Walz, interim president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “It will ultimately lead to potentially more disruption for families because they can’t effectively plan ahead.”

Others also question whether BPS’s strategy is the right approach.

Mary Filardo, executive director of the 21st Century School Fund, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that works on long-term facilities planning, said that before closing and building schools, districts need to present long-term visions with projections and targets that communities can understand — and hopefully buy into.

“Your current conditions you shouldn’t be able to argue about too much,” Filardo said. “But your desired conditions are a real conversation with your city. . . . You need a long-term vision.”

But district and city officials say they can’t close schools at scale until students have better options elsewhere in BPS. Rebecca Grainger, the mayor’s senior adviser for youth and schools, detailed a number of new initiatives BPS is rolling out, including additional bilingual programs and “community hub schools” that will connect students with social services, enrichment opportunities, and more.

“The real key with this is that we want to move students to high-quality seats and something better,” Grainger said. “We have a real diversity of kids and that means we need to have a real diversity of seats.”

They also argue that a long-term plan could hinder their ability to prioritize academics. In addition, the district needs to earn the trust of the public, which Skipper acknowledged has been a problem for BPS. Delavern Stanislaus, the district chief of capital planning, predicted Boston will win buy-in from the community by successfully implementing the new programs.

“Trust is a series of promises we keep over time,” she said. “We have to keep showing up and doing this work.”

Rahul Dhanda can attest to the importance of community buy-in. Dhanda was one of many BPS parents who mobilized last year against the city’s plan to move the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science from its longtime home in Roxbury to the vacant West Roxbury Education Complex.

Announced in a showy press conference last June, the plan triggered immediate opposition from the O’Bryant School community, with many saying they were sidelined during the district’s decision-making process. They protested the proposal for months, recruiting allies on the City Council. Mayor Michelle Wu and Skipper ultimately killed the plan in February, citing a “lack of consensus.”

Dhanda, a father of a current O’Bryant student, said Wu’s administration should have consulted with community members from the outset.

“Imagine how much more could have been done over the last year and a half if we were working cooperatively, instead of having to fight for what is right for all of them,” he said. “It seems like many of the decisions that are being made are motivated by political goals unrelated to the outcomes of these students,” he added, “and so this mistrust and distrust is legitimate.”

Closing schools is always controversial and brings intense pushback from affected communities. Even the relatively small merger proposed Wednesday — consolidating the West Zone Early Learning Center with the James W. Hennigan School — drew a half-dozen public comments from parents and teachers at the early learning center who praised the school’s small size, among other qualities.

A poll released by the Boston Policy Institute earlier this month found more than 60 percent of Boston residents support a plan that could result in the closure of half of public school buildings if they were replaced with newer, bigger facilities, including majorities of both people of color and parents.

“Everyone says they want newer bigger schools until you say you’re going to close the one down the street,” said Greg Maynard, the Boston Policy Institute’s director.

Addressing the district’s challenges has been a political minefield for Wu since her election in 2021. Not only did she get blowback for her O’Bryant proposal, her plan to redevelop White Stadium for school sports spurred concerns that the city’s partnership with a pro women’s soccer team would reduce student athletes’ access to the facilities.

So it’s not surprising, according to David Hopkins, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, that Wu, now halfway through her first term, seems more reluctant to make politically fraught decisions.

“We’re seeing signs that the mayor is shifting into reelection mode and perhaps postponing some of those tough calls until after the election,” Hopkins said. “To sort of minimize the political risks would be a very understandable calculation.”

Niki Griswold of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Deanna Pan can be reached at Follow her @DDpan. Christopher Huffaker can be reached at Follow him @huffakingit.


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