Withholding Boston School Committee texts backfires
City left scrambling to explain why records weren’t provided
THE COVER-UP is always worse than the crime.
And so it is that Boston school officials find themselves dealing with the explosive fallout of a contentious school committee meeting almost eight months after the fact, just as the city prepares to re-engage with the same issue that prompted the heated debate.
The October 21 meeting, where the school committee approved a major change to the admissions criteria for the city’s three selective-entry exam schools, quickly led to the resignation of the panel’s then-chairman, Michael Loconto, who was heard on a hot mic making fun of Asian-sounding names. This week, two other committee members, Lorna Rivera and Alexandra Oliver-Davila, both Latinas, resigned after texts emerged that they exchanged during the meeting disparaging West Roxbury and white residents of the southwest Boston neighborhood.
“Sick of Westie whites,” Rivera texted Oliver-Davila, according to the Boston Globe. “Wait until the white racists start yelling at us.”
The changes to exam school entry rules were aimed largely at boosting the enrollment of black and Latino students at Boston Latin School. The city waived administration of a standardized test used for admission, ostensibly because of the pandemic, and moved to reserve a chunk of seats at the exam schools for each city ZIP code. The changes drew opposition from some families in predominantly white West Roxbury, which has long seen lots of students test into Boston Latin, and from Asian families who also have had lot of children admitted to Latin and who were concerned that the new system would make it harder for students in Chinatown and the surrounding area to gain admission.
In a statement accompanying her resignation, Oliver-Davila said, “I apologize for my comments and the hurt they have caused.” Oliver-Davila, who took over as chairperson following Loconto’s resignation, grew up in West Roxbury and says she was subjected to racial taunts there. “I regrettably allowed myself to do what others have done to me,” she said in her statement. She said she owned her mistake, but added, “I am not ashamed of the feelings from history that made me write those words.”
Rivera made no mention of the texts in her resignation letter, saying she needs to “recuperate” from the stress on her “mental and physical health” from being targeted in “racist threatening emails and social media personal attacks” related to the school district’s policy changes aimed at advancing the system’s “racial equity agenda, especially the change in admissions policies to the exam high schools.”
Rivera, in a text to the Globe, called the emergence of the texts a “right-wing coordinated effort to derail [the] BPS exam school vote.” The school committee was scheduled to consider this week whether to make permanent the exam school changes, which were only adopted last fall as a one-year policy. (This week’s meeting was cancelled after the texting controversy emerged.)
Lots of questions remain over the handling of the texts. The Globe says it filed a public records request the day after the October school committee meeting asking for all emails and texts among committee members during the meeting that pertained to Boston Public Schools issues.
The paper received a slew of correspondence, but not the explosive texts that emerged this week. On Monday afternoon this week, Globe columnist Marcela Garcia was the first to report on the texts, which she was apparently provided after Oliver-Davila learned the texts had been leaked to someone. Garcia also wrote that “a local reporter” had recently filed a records request for the texts. (That appears to be a reporter from the Boston Herald, which reports today that it had filed a request for the texts more than 10 days ago, “but the district has failed to provide them within the time allotted by law, breaking the rules as it often does with records requests.”)
The Globe wrote yesterday that omitting the texts from the records the paper was given in the fall “appears to break public records law,” adding it was unclear whether the texts were held back by the school department or then-Mayor Marty Walsh’s office.
Still murky even is the question of what the Globe was told last fall about any records being held back. The state public records law requires that government agencies tell the person requesting documents whether any information has been held back or redacted. Such disclosure is the only way a requester would have a basis to file an appeal seeking any redacted information.In Monday’s paper, the Globe reported that when it obtained the requested records last November, “The document didn’t indicate that messages had been redacted.” But today’s Globe says a letter at a time from the city’s legal department said, “BPS did omit portions deemed ‘not related to BPS issues.’”
If the decision to hold back the text exchange between Rivera and Oliver-Davila came from the mayor’s office, that becomes another controversy not handled well during his final months in office by Walsh, who has been pilloried for his botched appointment of Dennis White as police commissioner. And if the timing of the texts’ release now complicates things for city leaders as they move to make the exam school changes permanent, it would appear they only have themselves to blame.