“I got algo-rhythm, who could ask for anything more?”

EllaYou know the word on the street. You’ve heard it as much as the Parent Imperfect has, and you’ve probably said it yourself. The Boston School Committee lacks vertebrae. As a committee appointed by the Mayor, it is a rubber stamp that almost never takes a position in opposition to its Appointer, and it absolutely never does that on an important issue. Even a quick look at the Committee’s decisions over the past few years confirms the news. Wouldn’t this be a great time to prove the word on the street wrong?

If the BSC is a waste of time, then a group of about 150 people wasted a collective 650 hours at a meeting that lasted over 4 hours at Boston English High School this past Thursday night. I was among them. More than 50 people stayed to the bitter end, even as the snow piled up outside. If you’re wondering why the BPS didn’t close school the next day, despite the terrible driving conditions, I’m sure that the Super’s presence at this meeting for over four hours had something to do with the lack of a decision.

On Tuesday, I contacted the School Committee’s administrative assistant to sign up to make a “public comment” at the meeting (are there options for private comments?). She responded promptly that according to the BSC rules, one had to show up at the meeting and sign up. People would then comment on a “first come, first served” basis.

Naively believing this to be the case, I arrived at 5:45PM and signed up as number four on the list. I couldn’t believe that three people had gotten there before me. I got three minutes to speak at 10:18PM. Eighteen student speakers from the Mission Hill community organization, Sociedad Latina, spoke first in the public comment period, which didn’t start until almost 9PM. They were amazing: It was worth sitting there all that time to hear these young people.

Sociedad LatinaI can understand putting the students at the front of the line, but then 21 adults spoke before the poor PI. What happened to “first come, first served?” Are they just incompetent, or did they recognize the PI’s name and put him at the bottom, hoping he wouldn’t stick it out? I spoke six minutes before someone who signed up in the middle of the meeting, almost three hours after I did. This experience perfectly symbolizes my twelve years as a BPS parent. Are they just incompetent, or are they out to get me?

The meeting, itself, was fascinating, if excruciating. With notable exceptions, the message to the BSC was quite consistent:

1. It’s all about quality schools in all neighborhoods. You’re not even having the right discussion here.
2. We appreciate the job done by the EAC, but this “Home-Based A” proposal, with walk zone preference nailed onto it, isn’t going to work for people who don’t live near good schools.
3. We want quality schools for our kids and are willing to travel to get access to them.
4. There are specific problems in the recommendation regarding Special Ed children and English Language Learners that the BPS will ignore at its peril (legally).

The EAC spoke in the beginning, trying to summarize their recommendation and how they got to it. One of the two EAC members spoke openly against the recommendation to preserve the 50% walk zone priority (the EAC co-chair deserves praise for allowing that to happen) and the other spoke for the walk zone recommendation, but said that she had been revisiting that part of the recommendation in her mind since the decision was made. That was nice, but I prefer my revisiting before important decisions are taken.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council muddied the waters (clear water wouldn’t be believable, in this case) by hedging on the walk zone preference question. MAPC’s Executive Director said they didn’t have the data to say what effect it would have to keep the 50% preference. They could say that a stronger (more than 50%) walk zone preference would work against equity, but couldn’t take the great leap to say that a weaker (or no) walk zone preference would work for equity. The idea that more data is what we need assumes that the famous “MIT simulation” (source of all said data) can actually predict how thousands of parents will react when this gets rolled out. It can’t. Would that more data be the solution…

Quest and Mass Advocates for Children each got five minutes to share their views and both did a very good job showing the inequity inherent in the EAC recommendation.

One gentleman stood near the end of the meeting (right before me) and spoke with some passion about the importance of the walk zone preference for him as he tries to be comfortable with his five-year-old son going to a BPS school. It was good that someone expressed this view, which certainly exists in the community (and Downtown), but even polite applause was eerily absent from the auditorium when the poor guy slumped back to his seat.

DancersComic relief was provided by two professors (one from BC, another from MIT) who spent an entire half hour explaining an arcane aspect of the way the famous “algorithm” works. All they needed to do was get up and dance across the stage singing, “I got algo-rhythm, who could ask for anything more?” Their point was a serious one, but did they deserve six times the space given to Quest or MAC to speak on behalf of an important segment of the district’s parents? Frankly, I smelled a rat, as did one other Quest parent, who rose to speak about the professors later. At the end of the professors’ dissertation defense, School Committee member John Barros dismissed the importance of their point in about forty-five seconds. If this idea of playing with the “processing order” surfaces again, I’ll need no more evidence that City Hall is marionetting this thing.

New ChairThe Boston School Committee has a new Chair. Unfortunately for him, the very first visible decision the committee will make on his watch will be this highly controversial one. The committee has a creative recommendation from a community advisory group, but that proposal bears a “poison pill,” the walk zone preference. The Chair has the info he needs to extract that pill from the package. Let’s see if he can do it. This would, indeed, be a great time for the word on the street to be proven wrong.

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