Painful politics of school closures pose challenge for Mayor Wu

Wu charged into office two and a half years ago promising to make the hard calls. A parent of Boston Public Schools students, she pledged to prioritize education and ensure high-quality instruction for all students — a promise that experts say requires the politically painful step of shuttering beloved but redundant schools so education dollars can be more effectively spent.

Now, ahead of an expected bid for a second term in 2025, Wu is pushing a scaled-back plan for the district that, at least in the short term, would only consolidate two schools that already share a campus, and close the district’s last stand-alone middle school. It’s a plan that education experts and advocates fear kicks the can down the road; on the other hand, it may at least temporarily spare the mayor the ire of public school parents furious that their child’s local school has been shut.

Wu’s approach to school closures underscores that even as she aims to lead a new kind of administration, she can’t avoid the challenges that dogged her predecessors — perhaps most notably the albatross of Boston Public Schools, which have suffered from years of disinvestment, plummeting enrollment, and crumbling school buildings. And on an issue that is exceedingly personal for her constituents, it’s another difficult balancing act for Wu: Fail to incorporate community feedback, and residents’ opposition can sink your plan; but wait too long to act, and the improvements may come too slowly to benefit thousands of students who need them.

“When you look at master facilities plans from other cities, when they do that, they have lists of projects that go five or 10 years,” said Will Austin, president of the Boston Schools Fund, an education equity nonprofit. “Budgets, timelines, enrollment projections — these are things that we don’t have.”

In an interview with the Globe, Wu said the slower timeline is necessary to make deliberate decisions, undertake time-intensive data collection, learn from mistakes of the past, and seek robust public feedback.

“This was really about wanting to get things right,” Wu told the Globe. “If there are major changes, a family has to be able to know that the change is being made not to save some money for the district, but to be able to improve the experience that their student is having.”

More than halfway through Wu’s first term, she and Skipper have yet to provide BPS families with a robust, long-term plan for when their children’s schools will shutter, merge, or undergo renovations. Instead, the district will release updates on closures and mergers on an annual basis. Asked when parents might see a timeline for a long-term schools facilities plan, Wu said only, “we’re working toward that as quickly as possible.”

That’s despite a state-mandated improvement plan that Wu helped broker between the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education and the district to avoid a state takeover, a deal that required BPS to unveil and implement a facilities plan by the end of last year. But what the district has provided so far is more of a decision-making rubric, critics said.

The uncertainty and delay, critics warned, won’t give families enough time to plan ahead, and could cause more families to leave the district — exacerbating the current under-enrollment problem.

Mary Tamer, a former BPS parent, former Boston School Committee member, and executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, said the plan lacks the necessary urgency to address the district’s longstanding problems — potentially leaving generations of kids behind and resources spread too thin for too long. And she faulted Wu directly, noting that in Boston’s strong-mayor form of government, “everything stops with the mayor.”

“[Wu] has been in office for over 10 years now,” said Tamer, referring to Wu’s tenure as a city councilor prior to becoming mayor. “This is not a new problem … so whether you choose to ignore it as a city councilor, or whether you choose to ignore it as mayor, that is still a willful decision that you’re making to not make a truly fiscally responsible decision to invest in children and to no longer invest in empty seats.”

“We do not have the luxury to wait,” she added. “Our children are losing every year that we choose to not make these hard decisions.”

Wu and her allies say the administration has been working to improve school facilities. She has pledged $2 billion as part of what she calls a Green New Deal for BPS, to create renovated, larger, environmentally efficient schools that provide not only high-quality instruction but also access to social services and support. Though the ambitious plan does not explicitly address school closures — and Wu rarely mentioned them during her campaign for mayor — achieving the plan’s goals would require closures and consolidations. Since taking office, Wu has acknowledged the need to close schools, and said the city is working toward it.

But Wu insisted she is not willing to close schools just to eliminate empty seats and save money. Her priority, she said, is first ensuring that students whose schools would be shut have a better option elsewhere in the district.

For some, that explanation presents a chicken-or-egg dilemma: How can the city invest in new, better programs when so much money and so many staff are tied up in many half-empty schools? In 2022, BPS spent just under $35,000 per student — the second highest per-pupil spending level among big US cities, according to the most recent federal data. Yet, student performance remains poor.

Several education experts said Wu and Skipper deserve time, given the size and complexity of BPS’s challenges, which have been decades in the making.

“BPS is a large, almost unmanageable system, given how it’s structured,” said Ed Lambert, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “It’s too early in her term to suggest that there’s some backtracking. It’s a different conversation if the mayor stands for reelection and there still isn’t a plan.”

Jessica Tang, current president of the Boston Teachers Union and soon to be head of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said, “if the community input that was gathered was that this was too rushed, then slowing it down is the right thing to do.” The teachers union has long been cautious about school consolidation, and Tang emphasized the district should be prioritizing expediting a plan for new constructions and renovations, which should inform decisions on closures.

“If you’re just closing or merging the school, and you can’t clearly articulate how this is actually going to benefit the students and communities that will then be disrupted as a result of the merger or closure, then you have to question, ‘Well, then why are we doing this as a district?’ ” Tang said, adding that any proposal for a school closure should be announced two years in advance of any changes to allow families and staff time to give input and prepare.

Of course, some observers noted, there is an undeniable political calculation for Wu in delaying controversial school closures ahead of a year when she would need the support of BPS families at the polls.

Paul Reville, a former state education secretary, said that “family engagement and school closings is political. If you don’t do it right, you get a lot of political pushback.”

But Reville said he does not believe Wu is making school facilities choices based on political considerations.

“The administration has wisely stepped back and said … ‘Let’s do it in a way that will enable us to do some of the in-depth community engagement that didn’t go so well in some of the previous projects,’ ” Reville said. The deliberate pace reflects “lessons learned from recent past experience,” he added — namely the administration’s back-tracking on plans to move the John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science.

Wu announced in June 2023 that the city would move its most diverse exam school from its current home in Roxbury to the farther-afield, majority-white neighborhood of West Roxbury, an effort to provide a much-needed facilities upgrade for O’Bryant students. But she walked back the proposal this February after uproar from the community, with many parents saying they had not been included in the process.

The incident highlighted how controversial school planning can be — and how essential BPS family support is to the mayor.

But Wu denied that her decisions on school facilities have anything to do with her expected reelection bid next year.

“I think it’s always hard and painful to make major changes to people’s lives,” she said, “no matter what year it is.”

Niki Griswold can be reached at Follow her @nikigriswold. Emma Platoff can be reached at Follow her @emmaplatoff.

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