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Boston School Committee approves cost-cutting plan

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By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / December 16, 2010

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The Boston School Committee voted unanimously last night to close or merge 18 schools, during an emotional and heated meeting that drew hundreds of upset parents, students, staff, and community activists.

Many attendees left the meeting in tears, while others in the crowd shouted to the School Committee, “shame on you.’’

“I’m disgusted,’’ said Kerry Kealey, a second-grade teacher at the Agassiz Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, which will be shutting down in June. “We pour our hearts into our jobs every day. We don’t even have paper in our building. We have to buy our own, but we do it for the kids.’’

School Committee members argued they had no choice but to support the changes for next fall as part of an effort to remedy a potential $63 million shortfall for the next school year. The district has some 5,600 empty classroom seats scattered across the city, and downsizing the district will reduce excess capacity by a quarter, saving about $10 million.

“Nobody wants their school closed, period,’’ said the Rev. Gregory Groover, the school board chairman. “We get that and understand that. . . . However, we have to make tough decisions based on the recommendation of our superintendent.’’

Superintendent Carol R. Johnson presented the proposal just two weeks ago, replacing a narrower set of recommendations she made in October, which she later withdrew because fiscal watchdogs said the amount of money saved was too small.

The new plan still did not satisfy the city’s leading fiscal watchdog, the business-funded Boston Municipal Research Bureau, because thousands of more seats could go empty as the state opens more independently run charter schools in the city.

Samuel Tyler, the bureau’s president, said in a statement before the meeting that the School Committee and the superintendent will have to consider another round of school closings within the next year or two.

Emotions ran high throughout the four-hour meeting at English High School in Jamaica Plain, where hundreds of opponents packed the auditorium, while dozens of others watched the proceedings on a large screen in the gymnasium.

The crowd repeatedly booed and heckled Johnson as she read a speech justifying the closings.

Johnson’s mentioning of some school bus drivers attending the meeting in order to save their jobs drew jeers. Her calls for greater cost savings in the teachers contract proved unpopular, as well. And any mention of the school closings riled the crowd.

“You are robbing our future by closing our school,’’ a high school student yelled, standing up from her seat.

The protests grew so loud that Johnson had to stop her speech twice, while Groover came to her defense and struggled to quiet the crowd.

Johnson stuck to her script and did not respond to the outbursts. A number of police officers were on hand to keep order.

By the meeting’s end, the crowd grew restless again, repeatedly chanting, “Save our schools,’’ and hurling insults at the School Committee as it prepared to vote.

The heckling from one man struck a nerve with committee member Claudio Martinez.

“When I need a comment from a white privileged kid like you, I’ll let you know,’’ Martinez said.

The man, who appeared to be in his 20s and had tattoos on his neck and arms, yelled back that he was unemployed, as he voiced his outrage over the comment.

A pregnant teacher leaped to the man’s defense as she yelled from her seat at Martinez, who was on the stage. That prompted Groover to repeatedly call for security to remove the teacher, who ultimately left on her own.

A few School Committee members tried scaling back the proposal before the vote. Martinez, John Barros, and Alfreda Harris unsuccessfully tried to stop merging Alighieri Elementary School into the Umana Middle School, which would have left the Alighieri building in East Boston empty.

Similarly, Barros and Martinez failed to save Roxbury’s Emerson Elementary School, at least temporarily, so the school could explore a merger with the nearby Dearborn Middle School.

The proposal would leave eight school buildings empty. In addition to the Agassiz, Alighieri, and the Emerson, the proposal would leave five other school buildings empty: the East Zone Early Learning Center, Fifield Elementary, and Middle School Academy, all in Dorchester; Farragut Elementary in Mission Hill and the Hyde Park Education Complex, which means the demise of two small high schools there, the Engineering School and the Social Justice Academy.

The proposal also calls for merging eight schools that share a building. Excel High School and Monument High School in South Boston would merge. Lee Academy Pilot School and Joseph Lee Elementary in Dorchester would partially unite. And the four high schools at the West Roxbury Education Complex would become two schools.

Many kept asking why Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who supported the restructuring, did not show up at the meeting to defend the plan in front of those directly affected.

During public testimony, Jireh Wilfred, 17, whose sister is a teacher at the Emerson School, spoke of the risks school closings could present to children.

“They might go off and sell drugs, go into gangs,’’ Wilfred said. “How can you live with yourself?’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com.

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