Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced Wednesday a new working group to tackle longstanding transportation issues plaguing the district, including late or no-show buses, student assignments to schools, and school start times.
“I say often that transportation is a symptom of the system needing to be fixed,” Cassellius told a Boston School Committee meeting. She said the group would work to find “a 30 percent or more reduction in costs so that we can turn around and put those dollars back into educating our children.”
Several School Committee members praised the announcement in a district that buses more than half of students — 27,000 — each day.
Cassellius acknowledged she was wading into a potential minefield: “I am forming this group because I believe it will take political will and public support to make these necessary changes.”
Boston has not changed the way it assigns students to elementary and middle schools since 2013 when the School Committee adopted a policy that allows families to apply to any school within a one-mile radius of their home and gives them additional choices if there are not enough quality schools nearby. Officials hoped the new policy would reduce busing costs, but they only grew much larger in each ensuing year.
Crafting the new policy took about a year and was overseen by a 27-member advisory board that met publicly. It was the biggest overhaul in more than two decades, replacing a court-ordered desegregation plan that divided the city into three sprawling assignment zones, giving families ample leeway in what schools to choose that officials blamed for skyrocketing busing costs.
Overhauling school start times is an equally complex issue. Former superintendent Tommy Chang tried changing start times in 2017 to save on busing costs and gained School Committee approval in December. But Chang’s team didn’t reveal the new bell times for individual schools until a day later, which collectively would have resulted in changing times at 84 percent of schools.
Chang killed the plan 16 days later — after former mayor Martin J. Walsh repeatedly backed him publicly — amid crushing opposition from parents across the city who were outraged that Chang would change the start times without getting support from each school community first. School district leaders, who developed the plan behind closed doors, vowed they would work more collaboratively in drafting any plans to change start times.
Cassellius said her new working group will include school administrators, families, teacher and bus labor unions, City Hall, civil rights advocates, and staff from BPS’ equity, operations, communications, family engagement, data and accountability, planning, and transportation departments.
“This is a big group, but we feel it is a big challenge and a big task ahead to begin to think about and reimagine Boston Public Schools and the transportation operational issues that we have each and every year,” Cassellius said.
She added that she hoped the public would learn from the working group’s process about the complexities the district faces, including union contracts that allow bus drivers to bid in order of seniority on routes they want to drive at 6 a.m. every day, which Cassellius suggested led to delays.
Member Ernani DeAraujo suggested the School Committee should create its own task force in addition to Cassellius’s to complement the working group and align with labor unions and City Hall so that “the fiasco we have happen every year ... doesn’t happen again.”
“We have to send a clear message to them that we’re going to wrestle with these issues,” he said.