Two Boston city councilors and four state lawmakers announced a plan Wednesday to overhaul the way Boston assigns students to public schools, mounting the first formal opposition to proposals the School Department unveiled last week.
The alternative plan by the elected officials, led by City Councilor John Connolly, would guarantee kindergarten seats for students at one of the four schools closest to their homes; establish 15 citywide magnet schools; and allow all students to remain at their current schools, even if they end up residing outside their school’s attendance area after the changes take effect.
The proposal was unveiled hours before Superintendent Carol R. Johnson responded to anxiety among some parents over the School Department’s five proposals to overhaul its 23-year-old student assignment system. Among the concerns is that the changes could force thousands of students already attending schools to switch to new ones in two years because they no longer would be living in their current school’s attendance boundaries.
Johnson said during a School Committee meeting Wednesday night that the final proposals are expected to include a “robust” grandfathering plan that will affect elementary, middle school, and kindergarten students.
She said one option under consideration is allowing children currently enrolled in their schools to remain there until the exit grade. Another option would let children stay in schools out of zone but eventually phase out cross-zone bus transportation.
She said that implementing a new system immediately would force many children to change schools, but “we don’t want that to happen in a less-than-predictable way.”
Although any final decision on a new system rests with the School Committee, Connolly and the other officials said they hope the School Department would consider their plan a sixth proposal. They have set up a website and asked parents to sign a petition in support of their plan.
Their plan was unveiled at a State House news conference Wednesday morning. Connolly was joined by fellow City Councilor Matt O’Malley and state legislators who represent Boston: Linda Dorcena Forry, Nick Collins, Ed Coppinger, and Russell Holmes.
“We should view this as a challenge that will be a blessing for the Boston public schools because it will mean that enrollment is growing and more funds are coming in to the city, and more children and families are using their public school system,” Connolly said.
Dot Joyce, spokeswoman for Mayor Thomas M. Menino, said the mayor welcomes ideas for improving the school-assignment system.
“This is an important process for our city,” Joyce said. “The mayor . . . is committed to moving this issue forward.”
She said that Menino spoke with Connolly on Wednesday, and that the mayor is “very energized” by the level of public interest in the process. The elected officials’ plan, as well as any others that come forward, will be placed on a website devoted to the process for the public to examine, Joyce said.
Asked whether the mayor’s office objected to the councilors and lawmakers publicly expressing opposition to the proposals school officials have presented, she said: “There’s no place for politics in this conversation.”
School Department spokesman Matt Wilder declined to comment on specifics of the alternative plan, saying that administrators need more time to analyze it.
“I think there are a lot of similarities in the plan and the proposal we put forth,” Wilder said. “We’re obviously very eager to hear back from the community on the proposal.”
The most dramatic proposal unveiled by the School Department would scrap the notion of geographic attendance boundaries and cross-city busing by simply assigning students to attend the closest school to their home with available seats. Another idea would carve the city into 23 attendance regions. The three other proposals would divide the city into six, nine, or 11 zones, respectively.
Sherman Zemler Wu, 36, of Dorchester, the parent of a Mather Elementary School student, said during Wednesday night’s School Committee meeting that he believes parents are essentially faced with two options — sending their children to the school closest to their home, or using the existing assignment system, but with smaller zones.
“I’m here today to plead with you to open the proposals back up and incorporate great ideas from anywhere,” he said to the school board. “Really look at Councilor Connolly’s proposals and incorporate other ideas that people come up with.”
Another parent, Karen Kast-McBride of Roslindale, said the current set of proposals from the school department are bewildering to parents.
“There is confusion, panic, and just general misinformation despite your best efforts,” she said.