Complaint: BPS closings hit black, Latino students

The U.S. Department of Education has opened an investigation into complaints that the City of Boston's school closing plans discriminate against black and Latino students and parents.

In a Feb. 15 letter, Donna Russell, an attorney in the department's Office of Civil Rights, confirmed that an investigation has been opened while cautioning that the investigation itself should not imply that the department agrees with the merits of the case. Russell said the office would act as a neutral fact-finder during the investigation, collecting and analyzing evidence from the complainants and the school district.

Following the Boston School Committee's Dec. 15 vote to approve school closing and merger plans, the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law of the Boston Bar Association and the Black Educators' Alliance of Massachusetts filed a complaint with the department on Jan. 25 alleging the plan disproportionately burdens black and Latino students.

The complaint says 46 percent of the students who will be affected are black and 44 percent are Latino, while only 5 percent are white, comparing those numbers to the school district's demographics: 36 percent black, 41 percent Latino and 13 percent white, respectively.

A disproportionate number of closings will impact students from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan, as compared to schools serving higher percentages of white students in areas such as West Roxbury, Roslindale, and Brighton, according to the Department of Education's summary of the complaint.

According to LCCR staff attorney Rahsaan Hall, "We are not suggesting that the District continue to blindly pour money into schools that have been identified as failing. However, we are concerned that the burden of making these improvements overwhelmingly falls on the backs of black and brown children in the city."

In a statement, Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson responded that, "the truth is, the schools slated for closure were selected because they are among the lowest chosen by families, have been struggling academically, or are in facilities that are not up to par. Furthermore, we are expanding choices in higher-performing schools and turning around underperforming schools in the very communities in question. We would be doing a great disservice to continue to serve young people in these schools when we have better options available. Frankly, it would be more appropriate for us to be questioned of wrongdoing had we chosen to maintain the status quo."

Among the examples of alleged bias toward whites cited by the two groups was the decision by school officials to remove the Clap Elementary School from the closure list.

Kenny Jervis, a parent at the Clap School, said he is "disgusted" at the allegation the school was kept open to protect whites.

Jervis, who has two children at the school, said its demographics reflect the surrounding neighborhood and that it is a rarity among Boston elementary schools because it is racially and ethnically diverse: 81 students are black or Hispanic, 56 white, and 7 mixed or other.

And he said rather than criticizing the way the Clap was kept open, people should be looking to it as a model for how to preserve and enhance public schools. He noted the school's designation will mean a lot of work for parents - to start, the school gets a new principal and all the teachers will have to re-apply for their jobs. But parents also agreed to help the school get the community more involved - for example, through programs with the nearby University of Massachusetts and Dorchester Historical Society.

Mayor Thomas Menino argued for the closure plan in December, saying more than 5,600 classroom seats in Boston are empty, costing taxpayers $20 million a year.

At a Dec. 14 breakfast hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Menino also pushed for four major changes to the city's contract with teachers: permitting principals and headmasters to move teachers into classrooms that are more suited to their skills, linking teacher compensation to student performance, extending the city's school day and tying teacher evaluations to student achievement.

Menino described school transportation costs as another growing and prohibitive expense, costing $300,000 per day, and said Superintendent Johnson would work to develop a new "student assignment zone plan that preserves choices for parents and cuts costs for taxpayers."