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At the beginning of July, more than a dozen Boston public schools closed in an effort to cut costs and reduce empty seats. But now the school system faces a different pressure: finding academic uses for all those empty schools or possibly losing grant money from the agency that funded renovations at the buildings.
On Wednesday night, Boston School Superintendent Carol Johnson will present the school committee with a plan for reusing the biggest of those closed schools: Hyde Park High.
She wants to move one of the city's three exam schools, Boston Latin Academy in Grove Hall (not Boston Latin School in the Fenway), to the Hyde Park building. Then, the Boston Arts Academy would move into the Latin Academy building. That would free up space at Fenway High School, which now shares a building with the arts academy.
WBUR's All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with Superintendent Johnson and asked her why the Boston Public School system wants to make these moves.
Carol Johnson: If we do nothing, if we leave Boston Arts Academy and Fenway right where they are, they won't be able to expand and the number of students asking to go there won't be able to go there. We'll still be turning down lots of students. By moving the Boston Latin Academy to the Hyde Park facility, which is a facility that's in better condition, we create the opportunity to make some renovations at the Boston Latin Academy building and then increase enrollment.
Sacha Pfeiffer: So you're saying that if you move these schools, it gives you a chance to do some necessary renovations and also increases the seats at the schools so more kids can attend them.
Absolutely. That is absolutely right.
But, as you know, there are some parents of students at the Boston Latin Academy, which under your plan would move to Hyde Park, who are concerned that kids, for example, who live in East Boston and who already have to travel quite a way to get to the Grove Hall area, will now have to travel even farther to get to Hyde Park. Could that make it more difficult for some students to attend Boston Latin Academy?
I have heard from a couple of parents that they have concerns about the distance, and some parents have suggested that the school start time be changed so that students don't have to get up so early to get to go a further distance. So I think that part of the work we're going to be doing over the next few weeks will be to talk to families, have them visit the locations, and then come back to the school committee in September to confirm our recommendation or to make some modifications.
Many of the Boston Public Schools that have been closed are still getting payments from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. And as you know, just [Monday] that school building authority sent the schools a letter saying that it may have to stop making those grant payments or even ask the Boston Public Schools to repay some of those payments because the schools have been closed. Was that a big motivator?
We have always wanted to make sure we maximize the facilities that we have. We have about 11 schools that are empty and we've been working very, very hard to try to make that sure that we use all the facilities as well as possible. We expect, over the next few months, to bring proposals for all of those buildings to the school committee. I have not seen a letter yet from the Massachusetts School Building Authority, although our staff has been in conversations with the MSBA to review all of our facilities planning. We do want to operate in a financially responsible situation so that any investments that have been made in the past are maximized as we offer strong academic programs in every community in the city.
You mentioned that you hadn't seen that letter from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. But we actually have a copy of it in front of us; we got a copy from the school building authority. They said they sent it by mail and email to the Boston Schools. And the suggestion in it, clearly, is that when the Boston Public Schools went to the Massachusetts School Building Authority to ask for grant money for the buildings, that by then closing the schools they broke the terms of that contract.
Well, as I said, I have not seen the letter or any indication that we've broken the contract. That has not been communicated to me either verbally or in writing. I know that many times they send information to us and it goes to our facilities department, so probably some time today I may get a chance to look at the letter. I think that we take very seriously the investments that taxpayers make in the facilities. We want to use them well. But we equally want to make sure that the academic programs in those facilities are working well.
It seems to me like the Boston Public Schools are in a tough position. You had to close some of the schools, you say, because of budget crunches and too many extra seats in the system. So you closed the schools. But now you're getting pressure from the Massachusetts School Building Authority that because the schools are sitting closed, they no longer want to make payments on them. So how do you resolve those two pressures?
Nobody wants to close schools. That's not our goal. And sometimes we've had to intervene and make tough decisions in order to ensure that every single child who attends the Boston Public Schools has access to the very best.
This program aired on July 19, 2011.
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