City Council Holds Hearing on BuildBPS Update, Community Wants More Answers

The City Council Committee on Education held a hearing on Feb. 25, on an update from Boston Public Schools (BPS)  regarding the BuildBPS plan. The BuildBPS plan was first announced in 2017 as a $1 billion, 10-year facilities management plan. The overall sentiment at the hearing was that more concrete information about the plan was needed.

“Two years later, we are looking for a clearer picture about what this means,” said Councilor and Chair of the Education Committee Annissa Essaibi-George. She said she was hoping to learn more about the financial plan and the changes that have been made to the plan to date, as well as whether or not feedback from the community has been applied to the plan.

“We haven’t had any updates in 20, 30, 40 years in many cases,” said Councilor Ed Flynn, and many schools have become “money pits,” according to Councilor Michael Flaherty, who called the BuildBPS plan “a breath of fresh air.”

BPS Interim Superintendent Laura Perille and her team sat on the panel at the hearing to present what they call the second phase of BuildBPS. Everyone on the panel was either a current or former BPS parent or a BPS graduate themselves.

“BuildBPS exists at present in two phases,” Perille said. She said the first phase was the original launch in 2017, which included work in brainstorming and facilities analysis, but “approached a stalling point over much of 2018.” 

Perille said they have restarted in a second phase that began in October 2018, which includes the launch and public release of a plan. Before that, Perille said, there was no public framework or plan out for discussion. 

As part of Perille’s presentation, she discussed the four principles of the plan. The first is the creation of more high quality learning environments for students, closing the opportunity gap, Perille said. The second is equity of program placement for students with disabilities and English Language Learners. Historically, these programs have frequently been placed in underperforming and lower performing schools, Perille said.The third is new approaches to identifying schools using student need as the foremost indicator, and the last is fewer K-12 transitions for students and families by “narrowing the complications of those transitions” in schools across the city.

Perille said that there are four facts that BPS is looking at with “renewed focus” for this second phase: there are currently not enough elementary seats to serve students close to home in the souther half of the city, there are currently limited options for expanding Special Education, English Learner, ad K1 programs, English Learner and Special Education programs are not evenly distributed across BPS high schools, and enrollment in standalone middle schools has declined by about 1,800 students over the past six years. Perille said all of these things are “key facts and principles that underline our plan.”

“We need to be very careful about unintended consequences as we make more enrollment shifts and feeder pathway changes,” Perille said.

BPS Chief Financial Officer Nate Kuder explained what he called the “five key buckets of work” for new builds within BuildBPS—new builds and expansions, real estate management, renovations and reconfigurations, districtwide investments and initiatives, and capital repairs to maintain existing buildings. The team wanted to make clear that while not every school will get a new building, “every building will be addressed.”

He also discussed the BuildBPS cash flow, saying that Mayor Martin Walsh has committed a billion dollars for the plan. Kuder said that $744 million will come from city funds, and the rest coming from the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA). He added that $147 million is budgeted for “projects currently in the pipeline,” including the Boston Arts Academy.

“We are working much more closely with the state than we ever have before,” said Chief Operating Officer John Hanlon. “Since 2015, we’ve accessed $117 million in funds from the state,” he added. He said that Boston did not leverage funds from the state in the past but has started to do so.

Hanlon also discussed the current BuildBPS areas of focus. The first is the closure of the West Roxbury Education Complex, including Urban Science Academy and West Roxbury Academy. Hanlon said that they have been working closely with those communities over the months. The others are the reconfiguration of grade levels and the exploration of K-6 expansion, capital projects such as repairs, renovations, new builds, and real estate management, districtwide initiatives such as security and schoolyard improvements, and lastly, continued community engagement.

Monica Roberts, Chief Engagement Officer for BPS, talked about the community engagement that BPS has done since October of last year. She said there have been 113 community engagement meetings since October 2018, and over 937 people have attended the meetings. “We want to continue to have meetings” as the process continues, she said.

She said that what they have learned from these meetings is that people are happy to have a plan they can provide feedback on, and they are also eager to move to a K-6 configuration sooner.

Councilor Flynn wanted to know specifically how this plan is going to go about helping students with special needs. Perille said that the primary way will be through the principle of equity program placement and putting these students “in the forefront of planning.” She added that they are hoping to look past the distinction between open and selective enrollment schools, as there are a large number of high schools in particular that serve a disproportionate number of these “vulnerable learners.” She said to except to see an increasing number of schools looking at how they can serve some of these students alongside their current communities.

Councilor Wu asked if there was a central place people can go to see the status of the processes for their neighborhood. Roberts said that everything is currently on the BuildBPS website, and they are in talks of creating videos or other media that will help the information become more accessible to students and their families.

Hanlon added that “we will be very specific” as plans become more definite. He said it would be a “big mistake on our part to say here’s our crystal ball,” and said that the “plan will continue to be somewhat deliberative” as they work with the communities.

“There is a huge lack of information,” said Essaibi-George, and wondered when students and families will be “touched by this investment.” “It’s frustrating to hear that we’re making a timeline to conversations,” she added.

“When I think about BuildBPS…I’m thinking about significant renovations. Schools should be saved, locks should work. It is within BuildBPS that there’s an expectation that we’re making a real significant investment.”

Hanlon responded to Essaibi-George’s concerns by agreeing with her that some of this work is “work that ought to be done anyway, but hasn’t been done for a number of years.”

“We are very hopeful that through these investments we will be able to get ahead of some of the deferred maintenance.” The team said they do not want to rush the process, as they have to consult with the communities and be aware of more unintended consequences, because those contributed to some of the issues that currently exist within the system.

A couple of Allston-Brighton parents testified, saying that while the schools their children go to are not in as dire need of help as others, they want to have some attention paid to their district as there is some work that needs to be done. One mother said that they spent a year fundraising for a new kitchen at her child’s school, but “are not being supported in that.” She said the new kitchen cannot be implemented because Allston-Brighton “is not a priority neighborhood” in this plan. Another mother said that her daughter is a student at the Jackson/Mann K-8 School in Allston, and the walls at the school bow out so badly that the roof has detached and it leaks, and the windows no longer fit. She said it is not on the list for a rebuild or improvements through the BuildBPS program, but she thinks that it deserves some attention.

Willie Bodrick, II, Associate Pastor at the Twelfth Baptist Church, said that the BuildBPS plan “lacks a clear and transparent ten year timeline,” as well as an analysis to understand the effects of the plan on both current and future students. Bodrick said the plan also lacks a financial report, and ”does little to answer the questions we’ve been asking,” such as what the long-term plans of the schools are.

“The plan as written punishes schools with highly vulnerable populations,” he said, and “doesn nothing to address the burning issue of variable equality across our district.”

Bodrick said that the fact that certain schools that are slated to close in the next year and a half (like the West Roxbury Education Complex) does “active harm” to the students who attend those schools. He requested a moratorium of school closures and facility decisions “until there is a clear ten year plan,” he said, adding that he does not “want to continue to make plans to make plans.”

Essaibi-George said that she appreciates all of the meetings, and that one theme that has been consistent throughout the hearing was a “request for a clearer timeline for better understanding of what’s happening next, what’s happening over the next 10 years.”

She said that they will hear more about this plan during the process for the school committee budget, as well as the City Council budgeting process. “We need and require a deeper understanding of what’s next for BuildBPS,” Essaibi-Geprge said. “Our families and kids deserve to know what’s next too.”

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