Maura In The News

Savings seen in ending student assignment plan
By Kevin Joy, Globe Correspondent, 2/24/2004

Boston public schools could save as much as $14 million in yearly transportation costs by abandoning the current school assignment plan and sending students to neighborhood schools, district officials told city councilors yesterday.

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John McDonough, chief financial officer for the school district, said the savings figure is an estimate based on preliminary data. City officials are weighing whether to drop the school assignment program in favor of neighborhood schools.

The district spends $24.8 million, nearly half of the city's $55.9 million transportation budget, on school assignment busing alone.

McDonough presented his estimate at a City Council hearing yesterday, but it was met with skepticism by councilors who say some minority students would lose out if the city abandons its assignment plan, because those students could be sent to lower-performing neighborhood schools.

Furthermore, they added, because other students do not even live within walking distance of a school, they would still need to be bused.

"From the perspective of residents in my area, our students would not have the same opportunities," said City Councilor Chuck Turner, who represents Roxbury and the South End. "It's the children of color who are on the buses." The school department is studying whether to reconfigure the assignment plan. Students in grades K-8 are assigned within three geographic zones where half the seats are reserved for children in "walk zones" and half are reserved for students who are bused.

The assignment plan was an outgrowth of busing in the 1970s, when the city was heavily divided by racial strife and violence over where to send students. Opponents argued that neighborhood schools would resegregate much of the city's student population.

McDonough explained that not all students live close enough to walk to their schools. The city requires that elementary and middle school students in the "walk zones" live within a mile and 1 1/2-miles from their school, respectively.

He said the transportation costs could add up if the city kept students in their current schools, but forced their siblings and new students to attend schools closer to home.

"We can't project exact savings until there has been thorough discussion of what changes will be made," Michael Contompasis, the school department's chief operating officer, said of the current plan.

In addition, McDonough said, other transportation factors include allowing siblings to attend schools in different areas that have citywide or open enrollment.

A committee was established to evaluate school assignment and is holding a series of nine public forums to get input from parents and community members. After that, school officials are slated to craft a more concrete plan and hold more hearings. A decision is expected in June. Blacks, Hispanics and other minorities represent about 85 percent of the students in the Boston Public Schools.

City Councilor at Large Maura A. Hennigan questioned the term neighborhood schools, saying "not every neighborhood has a school to send a child to."

At the request of Councilor at Large Felix D. Arroyo, McDonough said a more comprehensive study will be conducted to weigh variables and solidify the findings.

But Jerry Burrell, director of student assignments for the schools, said an imbalance of "walk zones" would prevent the neighborhood schools plan from happening citywide.

He said that no matter what action the district implements, some parents and students are going to be unhappy with the result.

"There's just no way we can accommodate everyone at every school," Burrell said.

"That's the reality we face."

? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.


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