Maybe busing isn’t the (only) problem

Net cost to Boston is just $37m out of $1.1b budget

SCHOOL BUSING IN BOSTON is a four-letter word, a phrase often spewed as a profanity whenever the subject of the city’s schools comes up in conversations, which is to say all the time.

Going back to the 1970s, when the city exploded into a race and class war over the yellow beasts rumbling through the neighborhoods, school busing has been blamed for the demise of the city’s educational system, the flight of middle-class families to the suburbs, and the drain on taxpayer dollars all in an effort to satisfy the need to improve the schools in an equitable fashion.

Every parent wants their kid to go to school close to home but not every school close to home is a quality school. So they try for a high-performing school, often in another neighborhood, and put their student on the bus for cross-town rides. But the cost of transportation in Boston to satisfy the school assignment plans is now $122 million and officials think that money can be better spent directly in the classroom.

Once again, busing is being blamed but is it accurate to cite it as the cause of all the system’s ills? As the Boston Globe points out, most of the money for busing stems from state and federal mandates with some grants and reimbursements, with the actual cost of school assignment to the city about $37 million. In a $1.1 billion budget, that $37 million is not going to do much.  (A correction has been appended to the bottom of this story)

There’s also the problem that the existing schools no longer equally meet the needs of the populations where they live. Some neighborhoods have seen an exodus of families so classrooms sit empty and resources dry up while other neighborhoods have been experiencing a boom in younger populations moving in but the schools in the areas don’t meet their needs educationally.

Another issue that is a smaller, yet somewhat noticeable, elephant in the room is the lack of a constituency for the school system. Last school year, there were 55,843 children enrolled in Boston public schools. Yet Census figures indicate there were nearly 78,000 school-aged children living in Boston, meaning nearly 28 percent of eligible students go to charter, parochial, or private schools. What’s being done to pull them back into the system?

There’s also the matter of housing. There’s a building boom going on in Boston, as most everyone knows, but the majority of those residential developments are being built downtown, in the Seaport, the South End, in the Fenway, and other areas that aren’t traditional family neighborhoods. The prices aren’t likely to attract those families anyway. With rents escalating and affordable units sitting empty, there’s not much available to bring those families into the city.

Another problem is the lack of new schools in Boston. The Walsh administration, much like the Menino administration, is playing finger-in-the-dike with repairs to the city’s 125 aging schools, replacing roofs, windows, and boilers. New school construction, with its promise of advanced facilities and improved technology, is but a dream.

The new Dearborn STEM Academy will open its doors this fall and the city has won state approval and funding to replace the Boston Arts Academy. The Eliot K-8 Innovation School just completed its renovations but, other than that, there’s nothing much on the horizon despite Mayor Marty Walsh’s promise to accelerate a capital plan.

And then there’s the question of whose interests does the appointed School Committee represent. Not everyone has the same answer and there’s a renewed movement afoot to return to an elected body, though there’s still plenty of people around who recall the potential debacles in that.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is a veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

A Boston native, Jack has lived in Massachusetts all his life. He was a major in English and history with a minor in political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. A father and grandfather, he lives in Plymouth with his wife, Susan.

But what it comes down to is busing is a problem, but not the only problem. It can cure some of the ills, exacerbate others, and serve as a convenient punching bag for everyone’s frustrations. But maybe it’s time to take off the gloves and look at the other issues that are building up while we knock around the big yellow bus.

(Correction: The original version of this story misrepresented the Globe’s breakdown of transportation costs.)