Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino vows to radically change Boston’s school assignment lottery in State of the City speech

Mayor Thomas M. Menino vowed tonight to radically change Boston’s school assignment lottery, taking aim at a system forged in the racially charged days of busing and pledging to create a plan that will send more children to classes closer to home.

In his annual State of the City address, Menino decried a system that “ships our kids to schools across our city” and tears at the fabric of communities. The school-day diaspora prevents bonds from developing among neighbors, Menino said, because parents don’t car pool and their children are less likely to play together.

As recently as 2008, Menino made the same promise during the same speech. In his State of the City address that year, the mayor said he would not “pour dollar after dollar into gas tanks” as he vowed to “rethink our school assignment zones.” In tonight’s speech, Menino acknowledged past efforts, but promised that this year would be different. He is ordering Superintendent Carol R. Johnson to appoint a citywide task force to design a new system and determine how it should be implemented.

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“I know I have talked about changing the student assignment plan before,” Menino planned to say to hundreds of dignitaries and elected officials at Faneuil Hall, according to a prepared copy of his remarks. “We have made many improvements over the years. 2012 will be the year to finish the job.”

The push to overhaul the school lottery system stood out as the heart of Menino’s 19th State of the City, which included an array of other proposals, from a citywide effort to battle obesity, to the creation of an advisory board to study plans for a casino in East Boston.

The speech also highlighted successes that Menino said have allowed Boston to thrive as the nation struggles to regain its financial footing. But more than anything, the address underscored the turnaround of a mayor who has regained his own footing and appears to be gearing up to seek a sixth term in 2013.

A year ago, Menino limped into Faneuil Hall on crutches, hobbled by his second knee surgery. Talk had begun of the beginning of the end of the Menino era, already the longest-running mayoralty in Boston history.

But in 2011, Menino regained his strength as the city embraced a building boom anchored by the start of 22 construction projects. Crime dropped in most neighborhoods. City officials forged a pact with union leaders to cut healthcare costs by more than $70 million over the coming years.

Looking ahead tonight, Menino declared that the city would “get big things done in 2012.” He committed money to combat childhood obesity and set a citywide goal for all Boston residents to lose a combined 1 million pounds in 2012.

“Look, weight is an issue that many of us struggle with,” said the mayor, who has acknowledged his own struggles to shed pounds. “But what is daunting on our own becomes doable when we work together.”

The mayor detailed several public safety initiatives, including 100 new neighborhood crime watches, the addition of 25 new police recruits, and an expansion of the police department’s unsolved homicide unit.

The gambling advisory board will be composed of business and community leaders from outside city government, Menino said, to “maximize job creation for Bostonians and provide transparency for residents into the process of casino review.”

The announcement comes a week after the City Council abandoned plans for a special committee on gambling. The move to form that panel angered Menino, an adamant supporter of a casino at Suffolk Downs in East Boston.

The mayor’s new advisory board will not examine whether a citizen referendum to approve a gambling resort should be limited to East Boston—as Menino prefers—or put to a citywide vote. “I don’t believe that would be part of their role,” said Menino’s spokeswoman, Dot Joyce.

But the most significant part of the speech targeted Boston’s school assignment plan, a vestige of the 1970s court-ordered busing plan to desegregate the city’s schools. The mayor echoed the findings of a yearlong Globe series as he noted that on any street in Boston, a dozen children may attend a dozen different schools.

Under the current system, the city is divided into three sprawling geographic regions—each providing a choice of roughly two dozen schools for students in kindergarten through grade 8. (High schools are open to students across the city.)

In a series of stories last year, the Globe chronicled 13 families as they navigated the city’s student assignment system. Many parents expressed frustration with the system, lamenting that competition can be tough because too many low-tier schools are mixed in with good ones.

When the three zones were implemented in 1989, the creators anticipated that as schools improved academically the assignment system would expand within a few years to nine smaller zones. But attempts to alter the system have failed, under public protests that the city lacks enough quality schools to go around.

Menino first raised the prospect of overhauling the school assignment system in a State of the City address in 1999, when he proposed building five neighborhood schools.

“The ultimate goal,” Menino explained after the speech, “is in five or six years to have neighborhood schools.”

Three of those schools opened in 2003, and the School Committee appointed a task force to develop a new student assignment system. The plan never moved forward because the School Committee believed that greater investment was needed in struggling schools before assignment boundaries could be changed.

In 2009—responding to the mayor’s call the previous year for new student assignment boundaries—Superintendent Johnson proposed five student assignment zones, but the plan collapsed under public scrutiny, mostly because of a lack of quality schools.

Since then, the School Department has closed several low-performing schools, expanded some high-performing schools, and infused intensive support for schools in a swath of the city that includes much of Roxbury and Dorchester. Administrators have also made fundamental changes at 11 state-designated underperforming schools, and some show signs of a turnaround.

“The Boston Public Schools have come a long way in the last 20 years,” Menino said in tonight’s speech. “I’m committing tonight that one year from now Boston will have adopted a radically different student assignment plan—one that puts a priority on children attending schools closer to their homes.”