Facing dwindling enrollment, Boston Public Schools has reaffirmed its plans for two elementary school mergers and laid out the need for further consolidation.
District leaders reiterated Wednesday night to the School Committee the plan to merge Dorchester and Mattapan’s Shaw and Taylor schools in September 2024 and Roslindale’s Sumner and Philbrick schools in September 2025. Both the Shaw and Taylor buildings would remain in use by the combined school until a new campus is built in Southern Dorchester or Mattapan, for which the district is seeking state funds. The Sumner-Philbrick would occupy a renovated Irving Middle School building.
The two mergers have faced significant pushback from the school communities, including at Wednesday’s meeting, and Superintendent Mary Skipper put them on hold soon after joining the district in the fall. Another proposed merger was canceled. But the School Committee is expected to vote on the mergers this spring and the presentation from Capital Planning chief Delavern Stanislaus makes it clear that these four schools represent the tip of the iceberg for the district.
The documents do not name specific schools that will be consolidated or specify when additional mergers will happen. But the long-term facilities plan, due by the end of 2023 under a state-mandated improvement plan, will include “a clear roadmap for aligning BPS capacity with our student population.”
Critics of the mergers have called on the district to put them on hold until the long-term plan is complete. Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, advocated during the public comment period for a moratorium on school closures until the district creates a comprehensive plan that includes an analysis of the impact of closures on Black and Latino students, students with disabilities, English learners, and low-income students.
“Clearly, decisions are being made behind closed doors and with a community engagement process that is performative rather than authentically incorporating the feedback,” Reyes said. “All of this has created broader instability and mistrust.”
Parents and staff from both the Shaw and Sumner schools also spoke, calling for better engagement from the district and concrete plans to mitigate any harms caused by the mergers, such as specific numbers of support staff positions, such as social workers and family liaisons.
“The level and quality of engagement needs to be built beyond what we are seeing,” said Lauren Peter, a Sumner parent. “We are not asking for a no vote. We are asking for a commitment of quantifiable actions.”
Skipper said she is committed to improving engagement and said those improvements would help smooth future consolidations.
“These are not the only merger proposals that will come before this body in years to come,” Skipper said.
In her presentation, Stanislaus argued that the mergers are necessary due to falling enrollment, the expansion of inclusive classrooms for students with disabilities, and significant staffing shortages.
The district has lost 8,000 students, or 14 percent of its enrollment, in the last decade, Stanislaus’s overview of the mergers notes, but it has not reduced capacity by nearly that amount.
“BPS has not reduced seat capacity to match declining enrollment,” the overview notes. “At this point, there are few remaining opportunities to consolidate classrooms without closing, merging, or significantly reconfiguring schools.”
Consolidation is necessary, Stanislaus said , because under-enrolled classrooms are expensive. Under the district’s school funding formula, money goes to schools based largely on enrollment, adjusted for certain high-needs populations. A fully-enrolled classroom costs less per student, leaving extra funds for additional resources like specialists and support staff. The same is true at a school level: the district’s commitment of at least one social worker per school costs more, per student, at an under-enrolled school than at a full one.
The district has spent $117 million since fall of 2021 on protecting the budgets of schools with falling enrollment. Next year’s budget pays for that cushion with federal pandemic relief funds, which expire in fall 2024 — likely setting up significant cuts for the 2024-2025 school year.
When that happens, Stanislaus wrote, the district will have to critically examine “our schools’ overall capacity and reconfiguring schools to create fuller classrooms.”
Consolidation will also help the district address chronic staffing challenges, the presentation said. The district was hundreds of teachers and paraprofessionals short this year, and consolidating classrooms would reduce the number of teachers needed.
Beyond the financial issues, district officials have long maintained that their priorities, including inclusive special education, are difficult or impossible to provide at the district’s many small elementary schools. For example, those schools often don’t have room to add therapeutic spaces to support inclusion, let alone libraries, gyms, art and science classrooms, and cafeterias.
In cases where a merged school continues to use two facilities, like the Shaw-Taylor until a new building is constructed, the district plans to divide the students between the two buildings by grade, rather than having classrooms of all ages in each school. Specifically, the Shaw-Taylor proposal is to put lower grade students in the Shaw building and upper grade students in the Taylor, with two schools combining to serve pre-K to grade 6.
Christopher Huffaker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @huffakingit.