The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A second Boston School Committee member has resigned due to racially charged observations made about parents during a lengthy public hearing last year about the exam school admissions process.
“Sick of Westie whites,” Lorna Rivera texted, referring to the Boston West Roxbury neighborhood, according to a transcript. Rivera is a professor of women’s studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston and Latina. She resigned her position on the committee Friday after the texts she sent during the October meeting were about to be made public.
“Wait until the white racists start yelling at us,” Rivera texted at another moment. “Whatever. They’re delusional,” replied Chairwoman Alexandra Oliver-Dávila.
The texts, shared on Monday with the Globe columnist Marcela García, were part of a back-and-forth with Oliver-Dávila, but were withheld from the Globe when the newspaper requested texts and e-mails shared among School Committee members during the October Zoom meeting. That omission appears to break public records law though it’s unclear whether the records were kept secret by school district or officials in the mayor’s office.
The texts were sent the same night former School Committee chairman Michael Loconto was caught on Zoom making comments to his wife that seemed to make fun of the Asian names of people lined up for public comment. Later during that meeting, the School Committee — shepherded by Loconto — passed one of the biggest changes in decades to its admissions process for its elite exam schools.
It’s a change that ultimately led to more students of color gaining admission this fall to Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science. The change also caused fewer students from West Roxbury to gain admission to Boston’s coveted exam schools, according to admissions data released last month. West Roxbury parents, among others, have protested the change.
Oliver-Dávila, who is also Latina, told García she plans to stay on the committee, despite comments she traded with Rivera. “I hate WR,” she texted to Rivera, also about West Roxbury.
Oliver-Dávila did not respond to texts or calls Monday seeking to further understand her decision.
It’s not clear why the texts between these two School Committee members only are coming to light now.
The day after the Oct. 21 meeting, the Globe requested all e-mails and texts among School Committee members about BPS matters exchanged during the meeting. The district soon shared a transcript of dozens of messages, including some messages between Rivera and Oliver-Dávila. However, the texts between the two women about West Roxbury were excluded. The document didn’t indicate that messages had been redacted.
Rivera and Oliver-Dávila told García, however, that they complied with the law and shared these messages with the school department in October in response to the Globe’s public records request.
Boston Public Schools officials wouldn’t explain exactly why these messages were withheld.
“Whenever there is a request for records held on a private device, we have to analyze whether the records pertain to public business,” Xavier Andrews, Boston Public Schools director of communications, wrote in an e-mail Monday. “That analysis was done and records responsive to the request were provided.”
Boston school officials referred questions about the decision to omit these texts to the city’s legal department, which didn’t respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
In Massachusetts, under public records law, agencies have a responsibility to tell the person who requested the records if anything has been redacted — and why, said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition.
“The law works in a way where the requester is never — should never be — unaware that there is information missing,” he said.
Without knowing there has been information redacted, Silverman said, the requester won’t have the opportunity to appeal the decision to redact, another key right protected under the public records law.
If the public records law is not followed, “government will be operating in secret,” he said.
Others wonder how and why the information surfaced almost eight months later. “City officials need to be held accountable for withholding and leaking” the texts, said Peggy Wiesenberg, a longtime Boston Public Schools watchdog. “I don’t understand why this is coming out now,” she said, adding that the timing seems suspect.
According to Andrews, another local media outlet recently made a similar request for texts or e-mails. The school department has yet to respond to that request, but plans to exclude the inappropriate messages.
Rivera says the timing is deliberate and politically motivated.
“This is a right-wing coordinated effort to derail [the] BPS exam school vote,” she texted the Globe, referring to upcoming decisions on permanent changes to the admissions policy for the three exam schools. “The timing and leak of these texts were intentional and an inside job.”
Officials at the city of Boston and School Committee didn’t respond to e-mails seeking comment on Rivera’s accusation of a deliberate leak.
In a statement shared with the Globe, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius called the contents of the texts between Rivera and Oliver-Dávila “disappointing and hurtful to the Boston Public Schools community, and to our larger efforts to combat racism in all forms.”
The School Committee canceled its meeting for this week. It would typically be up to the mayor to appoint a new School Committee member to replace Rivera, but it’s not clear from the city charter whether an acting mayor has the authority to do so. Kim Janey is serving as acting mayor, replacing Martin J. Walsh, until the November election.
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness.