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Boston talks about ending school busing

Boston public school officials hope to unveil a plan by mid-November intended to return the city largely to a system of walk-to neighborhood schools, revisiting one of the most contentious issues in the city's history.

Leery of the racial tension and heated emotions that have engulfed Boston public schools and busing for 30 years, top school leaders caution that no plan has been submitted and that parents will have a say in whatever gets produced.

Boston city councilors jumped on the issue yesterday, with some pronouncing the system of busing to achieve diversity a failure and vocally backing a return to neighborhood schools.

"Busing to achieve racial balance has failed. There is no racial balance. Period," said Councilor at Large Stephen J. Murphy. "There's less balance than 1974. But it has also had ancillary effects for the city and the kids served by the school system. There's the will to see this modified, to see schools and communities become one."

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has spoken in the past about the need to retain families in Boston, supports a return to neighborhood schools, with a component of choice. And some of Murphy's colleagues on the City Council caution that good quality schools should not be restricted to children in certain neighborhoods.

"The bottom line is that all parents, regardless of where they live, want to send their children to schools of the highest quality," Councilor Charles C. Yancey said. "That could be two blocks away or 2 miles away."

Councilors, who are running for reelection, promised a hearing on busing.

The impetus for neighborhood schools has grown with the opening of three schools in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, neighborhoods that previously lacked enough schools for children to walk to. With the new schools, officials now are studying whether they can redraw attendance zones so that more, or all, of Boston's elementary and middle-school students go to a school near their home.

Boston School Committee chairwoman Elizabeth Reilinger said school department staff members are crunching the latest enrollment numbers to see what is possible, and their findings are expected by mid-November. The School Committee will appoint a task force to draw up options and hold public hearings between January and March. Officials have examined the issue for years, particularly as budgets get tighter. Boston spends $55 million on busing, with $24.5 million of the total supporting diversity.

"If we can find cost savings there we can restore back into the classroom, that may make more sense," Reilinger said. "But we need to know at what costs, and the costs cannot be putting any group of students out of reach of quality schools."

History is not far from the minds of anyone examining the contentious, often complex way children are assigned to school in Boston.

In 1974, US District Court Judge W. Arthur Garrity Jr. ruled that students had to be bused into different neighborhoods to integrate the notoriously segregated Boston public schools. The ruling led to violent riots, plummeting enrollment, and years of racial tension. In 1989, the district split into three attendance zones under a "controlled choice" plan that considered race as well as parental choice in student assignments.

But a decade later, in the face of a lawsuit, the city dropped race as a criterion and created the assignment plan that exists today for elementary and middle schools: Half the seats are reserved for students who live within walking distance, and half go to those who live farther away, but within one of the three zones. The problem is that parents are often squeezed out of desirable schools even within their neighborhood, while some schools have sizable vacancies. High schools enroll from across the city.

Officials have considered plans to effectively nullify busing by increasing the number of zones, which would limit the distance students could be bused.

Five years ago, the consulting firm Bain & Co. drew up a proposal for 10 elementary zones and five middle-school zones, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, who was involved in the process. But it went nowhere, he recalled.

Now, momentum appears to be growing for creating more zones, which would result in more students walking to school, but also cut off choice for parents eyeing a better school in a different neighborhood. Charles V. Willie, a professor emeritus at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who designed the 1974 and 1989 assignment systems, said that creating more, smaller zones could result in more segregated schools because schools would have a less diverse, smaller pool from which to draw.

That issue will be studied closely before any decision is made, Reilinger said. She said she's heard of the number of zones totaling anywhere from 11 to 15 to 22.

Parents, meanwhile, are clamoring for input. Last week, the Boston Parent Organizing Network sent a letter to Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant urging him to bring the community into the decision-making.

"We are concerned," cochairman Claudio Martinez said. "This is a big, big thing that will require careful planning, and, we hope, open communication."

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