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Secrecy around exam school admission data prompts lawsuit

Boston Latin SchoolJohn Tlumacki

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The fight over changing exam school admission criteria in Boston is getting more litigious: Parents who oppose the changes have lodged a second lawsuit against the Boston Public Schools, this time for allegedly violating the state’s public records law.

The Boston Parent Coalition for Academic Excellence filed the lawsuit in Suffolk Superior Court on Thursday, accusing the school department and the city’s legal department of failing to provide data, text messages, and other documents related to exam school admission changes, which increased the odds of Black and Latino applicants getting in while decreasing the chances of white and Asian applicants.


The coalition, which consists of white and Asian parents, sought the documents three months ago. The group was motivated to request the information after a Globe report in June that revealed city and school officials had omitted from a public records request last year racially-charged text messages between the School Committee’s vice chair and another member critical of white families from West Roxbury during the night they approved exam school changes last October.

The messages, which were leaked months after the school department provided the redacted communications to the Globe last fall, led to the June resignations of Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, who was the vice chair and later became chair, and member Lorna Rivera. (The parent coalition earlier this year also received the redacted version of text messages after submitting a request to the city following an initial Globe report in November on the incomplete text messages.)

“In short, we all now know that the City tried to hide some very disturbing text messages that should have been produced,” the coalition’s attorney, Callan G. Stein, said in a statement. “We are trying to find out what else they may be hiding.”


A school spokesman declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The lawsuit comes as the parent coalition continues to pursue a separate lawsuit in federal district court contesting a temporary admission plan that allocated exam school seats this fall by students’ grades and ZIP codes. Judge William Young initially upheld the legality of that plan in April and doubted the committee had racial animus in devising it, even though former School Committee chair Michael Loconto was caught on a hot mic the night of the vote mocking the Asian-sounding names of some speakers.

But Young based his ruling in part on the redacted text messages the parent coalition submitted as part of evidence in the case and to which the school system’s attorney affirmed reflected a complete transcript when, in fact, they did not. In an unusual move in August, Young withdrew his written opinion after he learned the text messages were incomplete and grilled the school system’s attorney for the omissions, saying “I was misled.”

Meanwhile, the school system is moving forward with implementing permanent changes to the exam school admission process, which the School Committee approved this summer. Under the changes, applicants will be divided into eight tiers based on the socioeconomic conditions of where they live in the city so that students with similar backgrounds will compete against one another. Admission will be based on only grades for fall 2022 and an entrance test will be added for fall 2023.


On Wednesday night, some School Committee members expressed frustration that Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and her team still had not provided them with critical data on the new admission policy, including an analysis on what kind of impact awarding bonus points to applicants from high poverty schools will have on the outcome of admission decisions, as well as an update on implementation.

“I can’t do my job if I don’t have the proper data,” said one member, Ernani DeAraujo, noting it’s in the School Committee’s purview to monitor the implementation of the policies it approves.

In an 11th hour change by Cassellius before the School Committee approved the permanent policy in July, she lowered the threshold for classifying high-poverty schools, which now includes any school where 40 percent or more students live in households receiving government assistance.

Applicants from those schools will get 10 bonus points in the admission process, regardless if they are living in poverty or a middle-class home. Cassellius never presented an analysis on the change before the committee voted.

“I too echo the concerns, as I did that evening we voted [in July], about the potential negative consequences of the 10 points on some schools and look forward to seeing the simulations around that,” said Michael O’Neill, vice chair.

The parent coalition in its public records request is seeking an assortment of information, including data on MCAS scores and grades for each applicant and details on how decisions were made about which applicants met the criteria for being classified as homeless, which put them in a special category for seat allocation.


The group also is trying to obtain additional text messages from the deliberations on the temporary admission plan approved last October, including from Cassellius, then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh, and former student representative Khymani James, who voiced support this summer for Oliver-Dávila and Rivera and the comments they made about white people.

“Unfortunately, the city has failed for months to produce the text messages as required by the public records law,” the coalition’s attorney said. “Being left with no other recourse, the Boston parents filed this lawsuit to compel the city to produce those documents so that any other relevant but previously unproduced materials can this time be presented to and considered by the courts.”

James Vaznis can be reached at Follow him @globevaznis.