Monday, March 31, 2008

Long Struggle Ahead for School Budget

Thanks to a one-time infusion of $10 million from the city’s reserve funds, the Boston School Committee approved an $827.5 million budget with words of relief and praise for Mayor Thomas Menino. Despite requiring some cut-backs and new cost-savings, the budget figure for the next school year was still higher than the current figure by 5.7%. While budget-watchers see the potential for more savings in facilities and transportation, new plans to help students—sometimes by expanding services—are up against the growing pressure expected in coming years to hold the line on spending.

School officials say more than half the budget increase over the coming year is for personnel costs and other non-discretionary costs such as utilities. Almost one-quarter of the increase is for the cost of programs originally funded by other sources, such as paraprofessionals in kindergarten, family and community outreach, and the summer school transition program. A smaller portion of the increase is for new spending and expansion in areas such as K1, K-8 schools, advanced placement, “international Baccalaureate,” and dropout prevention and recovery.

Because student enrollment has declined over the last five years by close to 10%, the Boston schools are getting less money from the largest source of federal funding, the Title I program. Over the last two years the decrease was $7.8 million, and next year’s reduction is expected to be $3.6 million. For the coming year, officials expect a slight increase in the state’s Chapter 70 funding, to about $173.4 million.

The School Dept. acknowledges that some of the drop in enrollment is because of families choosing other options, such as charter schools. But officials also cite a change in Boston’s population mix—up in recent years by 30,000, though with a decrease in the total number of school-aged children. What officials say has not changed is the share of the city’s school-aged children attending the Boston Public Schools—about75%.

At the March 26 School Committee meeting when the budget was approved, Supt. Carol R. Johnson said there was “excess capacity” in elementary and middle grades, and that officials would have to look at consolidating services.

“The budget challenge we’re facing tonight is not a one-year challenge,” she said. “It is a multi-year challenge where we will be forced to look at savings in the future.”

The decrease in Title I funding and student enrollment was noted last year by the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.

“They’ve got buildings that are underutilized, underperforming, and yet resources are going into them,” said Municipal Research Bureau President Samuel R. Tyler.

“If they don’t go forward and make the kind of changes they have to make,” he said, “the next time around it’s not going to get any easier.”

In his state of the city address in January, Menino strongly urged cost-saving in transportation. Though he promised to maintain service to students with special needs, he said the School Dept. could “save significant money on the majority of transportation costs,” or else see them increase by 50% over the next five years.

But decision-makers are also concerned with other numbers, starting with dropout figures. In 2006-07, the Boston schools had 1,659 dropouts, with an annual rate of 8.9%. That was better than the figure for the year before, 9.9%, but still only down to the second highest figure since 2000-01. Last year’s figures from Boston show continuing disparities by race and gender, with a dropout rate for Hispanic students at 11.9%, black students at 8.7%, white students at 6.9%, and Asian at 3.3%.

In her memorandum to the School Committee on January 30, Johnson drew attention to other sub-categories—the graduation rates for the two largest groups of male students in the Boston Schools: 45% for Latinos and 48% for African-Americans. Another challenging figure is the almost 20% of the students in special education. Johnson maintains one part of that total is caused by an “over-referral” of students of color. And special needs students, according to statewide figures, are also the most likely to drop out.

The state’s second highest category of dropouts is English Language Learners (ELL), and in Boston they account for 18% of the students.

“There is not an adequate range of programs for ELL students, and there is not enough support for these students in their schools,” Johnson wrote. “Exacerbating the problem is a shortage of qualified, certified English as a Second Language teachers. Finally, families are often confused or uninformed about the choices available to them, resulting in their children not receiving appropriate language services.”

Johnson’s memorandum also drew attention to the call for quality in the schools, and it follows a request for proposals to set up more innovative pilot schools. And, as her message to the School Committee noted, her agenda depends on new revenue and collaborations.

After the budget vote, Johnson spoke of budget needs and the importance of keeping students engaged.

“I don’t think we can get the kind of excellent opportunities for all children that everybody wants,” she said, “without some added resources.”

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Carney Recommendation Stirs Opposition

State Attorney General Martha Coakley is meeting with strong community opposition to the call for an end to acute care at Carney Hospital in Dorchester.

The recommendation was part of a report for the Attorney General on providers affiliated with the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in the Caritas Christi Health Care System. The 197-bed community teaching hospital has been serving Dorchester and surrounding areas since 1863. Long a fixture among the mostly Irish-American population in Dorchester and surrounding communities, the Carney has increasingly been used by the current local population, much of it people of color and immigrants.

The Carney has also for many years been one of Boston’s leading providers of care to needy patients and the uninsured. The consultants for the Attorney General, Health Strategies & Solutions, say the Carney Hospital has “a long history of poor financial performance financial problems, low inpatient occupancy, and an aging and out of date physical plant with pent-up capital needs.”

In her letter accompanying the report, Coakley wrote, “Carney’s future should be based on current community need, not on historical service lines. Accordingly, acute medical-surgical inpatient hospital care may not be the appropriate future for Carney. The growth areas of health care are almost universally found in ambulatory settings and Greater Boston has no shortage of medical-surgical inpatient beds.” Coakley also wrote that the Carney’s dependence on state funding was of “significant concern.”

A director of the Health Reform Program at the Boston University School of Public Health, Alan Sager, calls the recommendation for the Carney “shocking.”

“There’s not another hospital in the city of Boston whose removal would tear more of a gaping hole—geographically—in the fabric of care,” said Sager.

“The Carney serves people who, if displaced, would be vulnerable to deprivation of needed care,” he said.

Sager says the effect on other hospitals could be destabilizing.

"If the Carney closes," he said, "the financial problems associated with its patient mix will migrate to other hospitals."

The recommendation is also meeting with strong opposition from administrators of Dorchester community health centers. They say the change would disrupt care for patients served by health center physicians with admitting privileges at the Carney.

“If the Carney closes, we would have to re-route a significant part of our patients,” said the president and CEO of Harbor Health Services, Daniel J. Driscoll.

He says the Carney is important for patients with chronic disease and substance abuse problems who occasionally need hospitalization.

“This is not the time to be cutting back on a low-cost community hospital that has both an emergency room and an inpatient psychiatric unit,” said Driscoll.

“Hospitals, doctors and patients live in a very complex ecology, and uprooting one of the three components disrupts the other two very badly,” said Sager.

“This is a great blow,” said Driscoll, “to the ability of Dorchester’s community health centers to care for the community in an effective and cost-efficient manner.”

Sager says the end of acute care at the Carney would force patients to use other teaching hospitals that are more expensive, thus increasing pressure on the costs to HMOs.

“If the Carney is closed as an acute care hospital,” said Sager, “people in our state will be propelled farther and faster toward unaffordable hospital care.”

Boston City Council President Maureen Feeney says the recommendation adds to uncertainty faced by hospital staff and the community. Feeney also represents the part of Dorchester where the hospital is located.

Coakley noted there could be more need for inpatient specialties that could provide the Carney with more fiscal and operational stability. She also said any long term plan for the Carney would have to address the availability of emergency services and include “substantial input from the Dorchester community.”

But Feeney says making the Carney a behavioral health services facility would be a “disservice to the community.”

“There is little doubt that Carney faces challenges,” Feeney said in a statement issued today. “I recognize that continuing to operate as is and under the current structure of Caritas is not a viable option. However, I am unconvinced that the future of Carney does not include acute care. It is clear to me and our local elected leadership, that this community needs the services that Carney provides. I believe that we do need a complete and comprehensive community needs assessment to more fully understand the ways in which Carney can continue serving the communities of Dorchester and the wider metro Boston area.”

Consultants also recommend that governance of the entire Caritas system have more independence from the Archdiocese of Boston. They say strategic, operational, and financial matters should be controlled by an independent board of governors, with matters of religious direction left to the Archdiocese.

Consultants also recommended that St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Brighton should continue realignment as a community teaching hospital competing in two or three service areas.

Also see coverage in the Dorchester Reporter.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Home Searches for Guns Meet Resistance

When she got up to speak at a “town hall meeting” February 21 in Dorchester, Isaura Mendes didn’t have to mention that two of her sons had been murdered.

“If you have little children, before they go to school—search their bag,” she told a packed room of more than one hundred people at the headquarters of the Mass. Assn. of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.

“If they have a little room,” she said, “then don’t let them lock their door.”

The words could have been advice to the family of LaQuarrie Jefferson, the 8 year-old boy who was accidentally shot at home in Roxbury last June, while playing with a 7 year-old cousin.

The boy’s death led to a fierce public debate, with elected officials and community leaders decrying the easy access to illegal guns. On the other side of the debate were the commentators who blamed adults in the family. Aside from having criminal records, some family members even tried to mislead the police by initially reporting the boy’s death as the result of a home invasion.

For Boston Police officials, the death of Liquarry Jefferson is a reason to move forward with a search program known as the “Safe Homes Initiative.” The initiative is partially based on a program in St. Louis that is credited with extracting 510 guns over 18 months during the mid-1990s. But, after months of planning and discussion with the community, the program still faces strong criticism from most of Boston’s African-American elected officials.

As described by the Police Dept., the searches would be done with the consent of parents. Homes would be chosen for visits on the basis of referrals from schools, community organizations, parents, clergy, or anonymous tips. Police making the home visits would be officers assigned to the Boston Public Schools. There would also be follow-up visits to help families with needs for social services. Officials say any gun found in a teenager’s room would not result in illegal weapons charges, since their aim is get guns off the streets.

At the community meeting in Dorchester most of the panelists were raising concerns about the program. They warned about the effect on relationships between parents and children, the possibility of legal problems, and the potential for information to be shared with other authorities.

“When we let the police officers into our house, it creates a problem with the parents,” said Mendes.

Also getting up to criticize the program at the meeting were four of the city’s seven African-American elected officials.

“If you snitch on your son, you’ve got to live with that baby,” warned State Rep. Gloria Fox.

“If the parent calls the police,” she said, “and if they don’t refer her to the wrap-around services she needs for her son, what will she have done?”

“This is not about us turning our children over to the police,” said State Senator Dianne Wilkerson.

“It’s not supposed to be where they start,” she said. “It’s supposed to be where they end up when everything else fails.”

According to a description of the initiative by the Boston Police Dept., parents can refuse a search, limit the areas of the search in the home, or call for a stop at any time. But legal experts and elected officials at the meeting said parents would feel pressured.

“Is that a situation in which they can make a free and clear and intelligent decision?” asked City Councilor Chuck Turner. “I would say ‘No.’”

A staff attorney with the Mass. American Civil Liberties Union, Sarah Wunsch, called the searches “inherently intimidating and coercive.”

“The only reason to show up on someone’s doorstep is that it’s intimidating,” said Wunsch, “and people are likely to open the door and allow a search.”

Councilor Charles Yancey said no program should go into effect “without the full support of this community.”

“We should not support this program of having police coming unannounced to investigate what’s going on in your son or your daughter’s bedroom,” he said.

A panelist at the meeting who strongly advised against giving consent to home searches was defense attorney and civil rights activist James S. Dilday.

“The problem is this, ladies and gentlemen: you as the parents, as adults, cannot think if you allow a police officer to come in and search your child’s room that everything is going to be fine,” he said.

“All I’m telling you, ladies and gentlemen, is--don’t give up your rights,” said Dilday. “Do I like what some of these little assholes are doing? No. Do I think it’s worth giving up some of your constitutional rights? Absolutely not.”

The Boston Police Dept. has a long history of conflict with the black community over searches. There was the stop-and-frisk campaign seven years ago that many community leaders said was applied too indiscriminately. There was the misdirected drug raid that led to the death of a 75 year-old minister, Rev. Accelyne Williams, in 1994. There was also the search in 1989 for the black suspect falsely accused in the murder of Carol Stuart by her husband and likely killer, Charles Stuart.

“If you don’t have a relationship, a positive relationship with people in the community,” said Turner, “you’re not going to be able to solve crimes.”

But police say the search program will expand positive relationships by directing families to social services. One of the leading planners of the “Safe Homes Initiative,” Deputy Supt. Gary French, says consenting to search of a room could also help families avoid legal problems. He cites a recent case of a parent who called about a gun kept by her 15 year-old son. After police arrived, they eventually found the gun in his possession, leaving him to face criminal charges and a criminal record.

“It’s the type of situation when that program would have been ideal for that particular family,” said French, in an interview on Neighborhood Network News. “It would have gotten the gun out of the street, provided some services into the family, and would have stopped the situation from developing to where now the kid is under arrest—he’s looking at a severe sentence.”

Supporters of the program say it could also deter older, hardened criminals from storing guns with juveniles. A juvenile caught with a gun would face less serious charges. But an older person with a gun might be more reluctant to pass it on, if it seemed more likely a juvenile’s room would be searched.

“We’re interested in getting that child with a young age,” said French, “a kid who’s not a fringe player in a gang, but maybe thinking about getting involved in a gang, or maybe holding a firearm for a gang member, getting that gun away from the child, and protecting and helping him out.”

Also in dispute is whether information connected with a search could be shared with other authorities. The Police Dept. says school or public housing authorities would get information about recovery of a weapon only if were “necessary to protect public safety.”

“This is a confidential program,” said French. “The records are going to be kept in the School Dept., in the School Police office. It’s not going to be shared with the individual headmasters. We have no interest in notifying (immigration authorities) or any other agency. What we are interested in doing is getting the firearm off the street and pumping services into that family.”

But Wunsch emphasizes the possibility of information being shared.

“They’re hanging on to the right to inform school officials about what they find in the home,” she said.

The Police Dept. has been planning to introduce the initiative in four neighborhoods which have been affected by gun violence in recent years: Bowdoin-Geneva and Franklin Field-Franklin Hill in Dorchester, Grove Hall, and Egleston Square and “5W’s” in Roxbury. The populations in these areas are primarily black, Latino, or Cape Verdean. Community leaders criticizing the initiative say the target areas are another example of racial profiling. But even they acknowledge that public agencies and people in the community should be able to identify a family that needs some kind of intervention to prevent violence.

While there’s agreement on all sides that Boston needs something more than another gun buyback program, some question whether intervention should take the form of a house call by police.

“All they really need to do,” said Wunsch, “is publicize a phone number to call and a person to call.”

French says weapons recovery requires expertise.

“We prefer to recover those guns for public safety purposes,” he said.

Even without the search program in affect last year, the Boston Police recovered 800 firearms. In 2006, the total was 805. And critics of the initiative argue that it concentrates on only a small part of a much larger problem.

“This would be like trying to fix a leak in your sink by putting a bucket there to catch the water,” said Wilkerson.

“We have to have a working, effective law enforcement authority in this city,” she said. “It’s not their job to be raising our children.”

And Turner says the problem of violence in Boston goes beyond “just a few thugs.”

“If you have 11,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are out of school and out of work, you’re going to have crime and violence,” said Turner.

"The only way to begin to solve it,” he said, “is to create a relationship with those young people who are out of work and out of school first.”

One speaker at the meeting who brought up the case of LaQuarrie Jefferson was retired Boston Police Superintendent Bobby Johnson.

“We do have to think about the civil rights of our kids, but sometimes we have to go one step further,” he said.

“I would think that if this panel could blow up the plan that Gary French has,” he added, “they can go one step further and craft a plan that’s good for the community.”

Also: see video report on "Safe Homes Initiative" by NNN reporter Joe Rowland.