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Boston adopts new school assignment plan

Ruby Francis of Jamaica Plain, a Boston Parent Organization Network parent, was among those who packed the School Committee meeting.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Ruby Francis of Jamaica Plain, a Boston Parent Organization Network parent, was among those who packed the School Committee meeting.

The Boston School Committee, in a momentous vote Wednesday, scrapped a school assignment plan developed under court-ordered desegregation almost a quarter century ago and embraced a new system that seeks to allow more students to attend schools closer to home.

Starting in fall 2014, the city will do away with three sprawling assignment zones that the School Department has operated since 1989, each of which offers about two dozen school choices.

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Under the new policy, a computer algorithm will generate a list of at least six schools from which parents will be able to choose based on a variety of factors, such as distance from school, school capacity, and MCAS performance. At least four of the school choices will be of medium or high quality.

The committee also eliminated the so-called walk-zone preference for students — within about a mile of a school. Such a policy can benefit students who live near a high-performing school to the detriment of others who do not have such a school nearby.

The plan passed 6 to 1, with John Barros voting no.

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“It’s not a panacea,” said Michael O’Neill, the School Committee chairman. But, he added, “the more we improve quality, the more parents get closer to home choices.”

Acting Superintendent John McDonough read a 2½-page statement from Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, who could not attend the meeting because of the death of her husband on Monday.

“It is a bold plan that strengthens access to quality schools, builds predictability, and improves our communities while ensuring our schools can serve them well,” she said. “Your approval tonight will allow us to focus together on improving quality and access to quality all across our city. This is the most important work.”

Johnson said the walk-zone preference is no longer necessary because the new system inherently allows more students to attend schools closer to home.

The decision caps a year of spirited deliberations and public outreach and fulfills a promise Mayor Thomas M. Menino made in January 2012 to create a system that allows more students on the same street to attend the same school. He pushed for the new system in hopes it would help build a stronger sense of community in neighborhoods and provide parents with more confidence about their school choice.

He appointed a 27-member advisory committee to vet changes. That panel endorsed the new system about two weeks ago.

Menino praised the vote, saying it “marks a new day for every child in the City of Boston. A more predictable and equitable student assignment system that emphasizes quality and keeps our children close to home has been a long time coming for our city.”

If Menino decides to run for reelection this year, the assignment system could prove to be divisive. The issue is flaring on the campaign trail.

Councilor John Connolly, who is running for mayor, has said the new system does not go far enough to guarantee students a school close to home. He launched a new broadside Wednesday night.

“BPS replaced the current convoluted school lottery with a different convoluted school lottery, and, to make matters worse, they removed walk-zone priority,” he said in a statement. “It is cruel to call this bold reform.’’

Barros, the lone dissenting vote, had initially supported the new system, but he ended up voting against it after failing to persuade other members to change the algorithm. He said he was concerned the algorithm generated choices based on the number of schools rather than the number of quality school seats.

Barros said that the two best schools in his Roxbury neighborhood — Hale and Mason — are small schools but that other areas have larger quality schools, potentially increasing the odds of students in those areas getting in.

“I don’t think supply and demand should be based on school buildings. It should be based on seats,” Barros said.

In changing the assignment plan, the committee decided to let students currently enrolled in the system stay at their schools. They also will let their younger siblings to attend the same school when they enter kindergarten and provide busing — regardless how far it is — until 2020.

That grandfathering provision, which will delay any transportation savings, generated some debate on the committee. Members Meg Campbell and Mary Tamer voted against it, believing the money would be better spent on bolstering school quality.

The School Committee’s broad consensus for the overall proposal contrasted sharply with a vote the committee took in February 1989 that established the current three-zone system, forged in the racially charged days of busing.

That vote — taken when the committee was larger and members were elected — was divided along racial lines.

The four black members cast the dissenting votes and threatened legal action. They predicted the three-zone plan would resegregate the schools, and they also expressed concern that the proposal did little to address other critical issues, such as upgrading facilities and offering better educational opportunities.

But four months later, federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity cleared the way for the three-zone system, denying a motion to block its implementation filed by lawyers for black and Hispanic parents.

Garrity had ordered the desegregation of the city’s schools through a busing plan in 1974, a seminal moment in Boston’s recent history and a decision that sparked intense criticism and violence in some neighborhoods. Garrity maintained a role in the desegregation process for 16 years.

In his ruling in 1989, Garrity said he doubted school officials would manipulate the assignment system to resegregate schools. Decades later, concerns over desegregation and too few quality schools still remain.

More than a hundred parents, students, community activists, and elected officials turned out for Wednesday’s meeting. Before the vote, many expressed skepticism or opposition to the proposal.

“How will this new system benefit kids in my neighborhood? It would not,” said Odette Williamson, a Hyde Park parent, noting that most schools near her home are low-performing. “The plan is not simpler, more transparent, or predictable than what we have right now.”

Councilor Charles Yancey urged the committee not to vote on changing assignment boundaries.

“It’s premature to focus on geography before focusing on quality,” Yancey said.

Outside the meeting, several dozen school bus drivers, parents, and others protested the proposal, circling the building as they sang Civil Rights-era songs.

They carried signs that included such messages as “demand equal education for all,” “no racism in education,” and “BPS school choice plan: segregation.”

“We don’t want to send our kids to a school that is good tomorrow,” said Dumond Louis, president of the school bus drivers union and a parent. “We want to send them to a school that is good right now.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis
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