Thursday, April 23, 2009

A look at School Assignment Questions

A series of neighborhood meetings will take place in May on possible changes in the student assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. The meetings will follow presentation of a revised proposal from the Boston School Dept. A final plan, taking effect in 2010-2011, would be considered by the School Committee in June. Tighter budgets will probably make access to quality more difficult. Officials working on the plan have to find a way between or around two entrenched ideas about school assignments: a preference for schools close to home, especially through grade 8; and a belief that more options, requiring more transportation, means more access to quality. Would more walking assignments, for example, for families in Hyde Park and West Roxbury, necessarily mean less access to quality for students in Roxbury and Dorchester? Would more neighborhood assignments necessarily increase access to the full-day benefits in a "community of learning?" And what about needs of English Language Learners and students in Special Education? See article in Dorchester Reporter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Biolab Questions Meet Clarity of Gray Areas

Two City Councilors trying to clarify the possible hazards on the frontiers of research at Boston University’s Level 4 Biocontainment Laboratory in the South End found themselves last Wednesday turning headlights on a fog.

The line of questioning at a hearing by the Council Committee on Health and Environment, almost entirely from Councilor Chuck Turner, was mainly to find out whether some research requiring extra precautions might even be ruled out by the city’s regulations.

The Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) restricts research involving recombinant DNA (rDNA), defined as DNA molecules constructed outside of a living organism or synthetic molecules joined with natural molecules. The city prohibits research with rDNA in Level 4, which is the setting with the highest risk and security precautions.

The head of the laboratory, Dr. Mark Klempner, had reportedly said he expected it would include research on vaccines produced with rDNA— “chimeric viruses.” And the city regulations incorporate guidelines from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) which do include standards for work with rDNA in a Level 4 setting.

Located on the Boston University Medical School Campus, the lab is already built, but its environmental safety review by the NIH is expected to continue for at least another year.

The Director of the Bureau of Community Initiatives at the BPHC, Roger Swartz, acknowledged the rDNA ban, but said he could only address issues “in terms of applications submitted” for specific research proposals. The BPHC would decide whether to approve a proposal after receiving a recommendation from an advisory committee. Swartz told councilors the question of rDNA would “be discussed in its entirety” once the committee comes together.

“We have had a number of discussions with experts,” said Swartz, “and it’s clear to us that there are some areas of, some gray areas. And we want to make sure that from the start, as we address rDNA and Level 4, that we have the scientific experts that will be providing guidance and recommendations to the executive director (of the BPHC). So, at this point, I would say we’re not prepared to address specific proposed or hypothetical research. We’re not there in the process.”

In his testimony to the councilors, Klempner denied the lab would engage in development of biological weapons.

“Let me state clearly and unequivocally,” said Klempner, “that all the research and every one of our researchers in the NEIDL (National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories) will completely abide by the BPHC regulation, which bans recombinant DNA research in Biosafety Level 4.”

After Klempner was asked about a statement he reportedly made last year indicating that some research at the lab under its associate director, Dr. Thomas W. Geisbert, would include rDNA, he gave neither confirmation nor denial.

“I want to reiterate again to you,” said Klempner, “that we are absolutely committed to transparency and we are in every case going to submit every proposed research proposal to the regulatory bodies that we need to respond to in order to be able to have approvals to do the research in the laboratory. I certainly have made statements about work that we hope to conduct in the laboratory, and we will continue to do that. We are continuing to recruit new scientists to do research, but that is different than making statements about the regulator.”

As Klempner reminded councilors, the decisions about which research would be allowed would be up to the BPHC. In other words, the lab was the regulated and the city was the regulator.

For one opponent of the lab at the hearing, the distinction between the two wasn’t clear enough. The legal counsel for the Roxbury-based non-profit Alternatives for Community and Environment, Eugene Benson, said one reason for this was that the president and CEO of Boston Medical Center, the main affiliate of Boston University Medical School, was the vice chair of the BPHC’s Board of Health. And he noted that a BPHC official who would be part of the committee reviewing proposals for research had previously recommended designation of the Biolab for Boston by the NI H.

“What you have is, in two ways, you have an impossible situation here,” Benson argued, “where the Boston Public Health Commission has refused to actually articulate what are very, very bright lines in their regulations. And then you have this back-and-forth between people who work for the Boston Public Health Commission and Boston University. So you’re setting up a dynamic where the dynamic is going to be to approve proposals that clearly violate the regulation. That is really no way to operate a regulatory agency. And, while it wasn’t my intention to make this recommendation, but I think the only recommendation that I can make coming out of this is that you need to prohibit all BSL-4 regulation in the City of Boston because what this tells you is that you are trying to do your oversight role but it can’t be done, considering the interaction between BU, the Boston Public Health Commission, and their failure to adequately and completely respond to Councilor Turner.”

Another lab opponent, a professor of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, Daniel Goodenough, went a step further. Though he acknowledged that rDNA was “a fundamental tool” for research, he said using it in work that required a Level 4 setting was “too dangerous.” He argued that it was difficult to oversee research that, once it gets under way, could take new directions, involving new personnel over time.

“All of these regulations, as we all know, just get harder and harder to maintain,” said Goodenough. “More and more people are coming and the turnover rate is huge—in academic that’s the name of the game, it’s up or out: you either succeed and you go somewhere else, or you fail and you leave. So there’s very high turnover, huge, huge amounts of training issues here, and I don’t think that the Boston Public Health Commission can possibly assess that. And it’s my belief that this regulation (banning rDNA research) was put in place initially with the understanding that we can’t regulate this—it’s too hard. And the only solution is to say, ‘No, we just don’t have any of this going on in a BSL-4 facility.’”

In one of his few comments on testimony at the hearing, the chair of the Committee on Health and Environment, Councilor John Connolly, described the remarks by Swartz as “very comprehensive, as far as covering the major points.”

Turner insisted there should be more definite information, and more transparency, about what would happen at the lab should it be approved for operation. He said it was “disheartening” that the BPHC was “unwilling to help the public understand the confusion that is here.”

“I think that really just puts wood on the fire,” he added, “that just makes people more distrustful of what’s going on.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

School Updates: Dropouts, Assignment Plan

The Mass. Department of Education reports an improvement in the annual dropout rate for Boston schools. The latest figures are for the school year 2007-2008, when the annual dropout rate was 7.6 percent. That's the lowest figure in six years. In the two years before the most recent figures, the dropout rate was almost 8.9%, and the year before that it was 9.9 percent.

But the Boston figures for 2007-2008 still had racial gaps. The highest rate was for Hispanic students, at 10.2 percent. The next highest figures were for black students (7.4%) and white students (5.3%), with the lowest figure for Asian students (2.5%). There was also a gender gap, with the rate for male students at 8.2%, and the rate for female students at 6.9 percent.

The annual rate is used less often for measuring the dropout problem than the rate that tracks students throughout high school. The increase in the annual rate for Boston began its last increase in 2003-2003, around the time of cutbacks following an economic slowdown. The high dropout rate for Hispanic students may reflect some of the problems with English Language Learners discussed in a recent report by the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development & Public Policy and the Center for Collaborative Education.

* * * * *
A series of public meetings will take place about possible changes in the student assignment plan for the Boston Public Schools. As a way to reduce transportation costs, officials have been considering a possible increase in the number of school assignment zones. Boston currently has three zones. More zones would mean that parents would have to make choices from fewer schools, though officials say there has been a general preference among parents for schools that are close to home. Officials say they hope a new plan will have four kinds of benefits: lower transportation costs, more walkable communities, a range of school choice, and continuity of educational experience.

The series of meetings will begin Wednesday, April 29, with the presentation of a revised assignment plan with five zones. The meeting will take place at 26 Court Street in downtown Boston, in the Winter Chambers. All meetings will begin at 6 p.m. The remaining meetings are as follows:

Thursday, May 7. Umana Middle School Academy. 312 Border Street, East Boston
Tuesday, May 12. Edison Middle School. 60 Glenmount Road, Brighton
Monday, May 18. Lewis Middle School. 131 Walnut Avenue, Roxbury
Wednesday, May 20. McCormack Middle School. 315 Mt. Vernon Street, Dorchester
Tuesday, May 26. Irving Middle School. 105 Cummins Highway, Roslindale
Wednesday, June 3. Boston School Dept. 26 Court Street,Winter Chambers (recommendations by superintendent)
Wednesday, June 24. Boston School Dept. 26 Court Street,Winter Chambers (vote by School Committee)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Budget Plan Takes Aim at Moving Targets

One day after Mayor Thomas Menino presented his budget plan for the next fiscal year, the Boston schools got slightly more relief than expected from the federal government. But, when all the figures affecting the city budget are known—and that could be months after the June 30 deadline for approval—the mayor’s figure of 565 layoffs could still get larger.

As of Wednesday, the mayor’s budget called for eliminating 212 teachers and teachers’ aides. There could also be layoffs of as many as 67 police officers after October 1, unless the city receives funding from the federal government.

Once again, Menino called on more unions to go along with a one-year wage freeze. So far, there have been agreements from 22 unions. Among the hold-outs are some of the largest unions, including the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association and the Boston Teachers Union.

“If the Boston Teachers Union accepts,” said Menino, “we can save every teacher and classroom aide in good standing.”

In a statement issued Wednesday by President Richard Stutman, the BTU came close to saying the jobs could be saved without a wage freeze.

“The Boston Teachers Union is actively working with our local, state, and federal officials to identify and generate additional federal stimulus money,” said the statement. “Beyond these efforts, we have been working with the school department to place current teachers into suitable alternate subject areas for the upcoming school year. In the end we believe there will be no need to lay off a single person.”

When the mayor announced his budget, he was counting on another $16 million for the schools from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

“We don’t see any additional money coming down from the recovery act,” he said.

A day later, Governor Deval Patrick said Boston’s Title I funding from ARRA would be $20.9 million-- about $4 million more than city officials projected a day earlier. But the chief communications officer for the Boston School Dept., Chris Horan, said there was also less money than expected from the Individuals with Disabilities Education (IDEA) Act. He said the net gain for Boston was only $2.4 million. And, with restrictions on how much of the ARRA money can be used for saving jobs, a spokesperson for the mayor said the difference would protect only about ten more positions.

The three candidates who have announced campaigns for mayor have all called for budget cuts in other areas. In a reaction to the mayor’s budget plan, City Councilor Michael Flaherty calls for more cuts in positions for managers and consultants, but makes no mention of the wage freeze. Councilor Sam Yoon has drawn attention to recommendations by the Boston Finance Commission, such as doing away with fire alarm boxes. And the day of the budget announcement, Kevin McCrea repeated in his campaign blog, “There is enough money in the budget to not layoff a single police officer or teacher.”

This year’s budget figure of $2.4 billion is higher than last year’s by $5 million, but the calculations also include a decrease in local aid by $62.2 million and contractual pay increases adding up to $55 million. While there are cuts in the School Dept. (1.9%), the Police Dept. (2.4%) and Fire Dept. (4.7%), the budget would avoid cutbacks in hours for libraries and community centers. There would even be an expansion of some school options, including early learning centers.

The budget is based on some expectation for new revenue that would have to be approved by the state legislature and the governor. The president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Samuel Tyler, says the expectation for local aid might even prove too optimistic, should the state budget gap approach the worst expectations of about $1 billion. But Tyler notes there could also be more money to protect jobs if the legislature makes it easier for the city to place city employees, along with retirees and their survivors, under less expensive health insurance.

Even if the mayor’s projections prove to be the most correct, the largest city unions holding off on a wage freeze have large majorities with enough seniority to know their jobs are safe. That could make the approval of a wage freeze a hard sell.

“This is probably the worst budget I’ve seen in all the years as mayor and city councilor,” said Menino.

“You don’t see any relief out there,” he said.

In 1981, two years before Menino won his first term as a city councilor, and right after adoption of a cap on property taxes—Proposition 2½—the budget decisions were more difficult and more divisive. Officials decided to lay off hundreds of police and firefighters and close schools. A few years later, as the economy recovered, Boston would get more revenue from its property tax base and local aid from the state.

A quarter of a century later, the local tax base has declining values for residential and commercial property. And, once federal recovery money is exhausted, the dependence on state funding will be more critical. The executive director of the Mass. Budget and Policy Center, Noah Berger, says the mix and volatility of state tax revenue have to be reconsidered, as well as the tax cuts that took place in more prosperous times.

“There are basic structural budget problems that need to be resolved,” he said. “I’m not sure whether the best time to do that is now, or when the economy recovers.”