Occasionally, you can fight the power and win.
Last week, the Roxbury community vented its outrage at the management of Roxbury Community College, which had just fired the longtime head of the Reggie Lewis Track and Athletic Center at a meeting of the school’s trustees. The protesters ranged from angry senior citizens to elected officials.
Now, lawmakers are close to a deal to strip RCC of control of the center, turning it over to the University of Massachusetts Boston. That would be a huge blow to the college, which has operated the track — Roxbury’s unofficial community center — since it opened in 1995. It sits adjacent to the RCC campus.
The change might be painful, but RCC officials brought it on themselves. Though the track’s management has been questioned over the years, it has a sterling reputation compared with the school, which seems to find itself mired in controversy every few years.
The final battle started when Keith McDermott, the longtime director of the track, was fired a couple of weeks ago. McDermott is an admired figure in the community, partly for his efforts to keep the center accessible to the community beyond the college. He always understood that it was more than just a track.
McDermott was dismissed with no explanation. RCC officials say they cannot discuss a personnel matter, but that just leaves the discussion to be driven by others. Apparently, McDermott was fired after a series of conflicts with RCC management about access to the center.
The idea that some other entity might be better suited to running the track had been raised before, but discussions accelerated in the past week. In a series of meetings, legislators have worked to hammer out the details of a transfer. UMass Boston Chancellor J. Keith Motley agreed to the takeover. RCC officials oppose the move but have been largely shut out of the negotiations.
“I’ve learned that you can do anything if you really want to get it done,” said Representative Russell Holmes of Mattapan, chairman of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, and one of those who has pushed for the change.
Because the Legislature is now meeting only in an informal session, in which bills can only pass unanimously, any opposition could derail the deal.
“If we can get everyone comfortable, we can still move it in an informal [session],” Holmes said. “We actually need consensus this time. This isn’t something we can ram through. But I’m confident we’ll get there.”
One of the issues raised has been the fate of $120,000 raised by the Massachusetts State Track Coaches Association at a fund-raiser at the center in August 2015. The money is being held by the Roxbury Community College Foundation, a quasi-independent fund-raising body that has no obvious claim to it. On Thursday, RCC president Valerie Roberson took the unusual step of calling for an investigation by the state auditor’s office into the handling of the money.
Roberson made it clear in an interview that she believes the move to sever the track from RCC is misguided. She said she worried that it will hurt the school’s ties to the surrounding community.
“I feel that it would be a disservice if we didn’t have the facilities to serve the community well,” Roberson said. “We use it for so many things. I don’t think it’s been well-thought-out in terms of what it would mean to the community.”
Roberson said the dispute over McDermott’s firing has overshadowed many healthy developments under her three-year tenure. She pointed to state audits showing improvements in the school’s finances, increases in enrollment and the graduation rate, and millions of dollars in capital improvement projects as evidence that the college and its leadership have been unfairly maligned.
But a community that has come to regard the facility as indispensable lost faith that it was being properly managed, and with very good reason. That its voices were heard is cause for celebration, not despair.