Q&A: School Committee Chair on Start & End Times, School Selection Process and Busing

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Michael Loconto was elected chairperson of the Boston Public School Committee in the beginning of 2018. As a parent of three school-age children he has a keen perspective of the school system. He answered questions from Jamaica Plain News about library services for schools, his relationship with Mayor Martin Walsh and more.

Michael Loconto was appointed to the Boston School Committee in 2014, and elected chairperson in 2018.

Q:  Let's get some basics out of the way. You live in West Roxbury with your wife and three school-age kids?

Loconto: Yes.

Q: Your kids go to Boston Public Schools?

Loconto: Yes, the Beethoven-Ohrenberger K-8 in West Roxbury.

Q: How would you describe the school selection process for you? How do you think it can be improved?

Loconto: My family first entered the district under the old, three-zone assignment process. We relied on a spreadsheet created by a member of the West Zone Parents Group and made visits to a number of schools as our schedules permitted. Since that time, the district has adopted a new assignment process, and has revamped the Discover BPS website. I view both as improvements over the former processes, but we still have a ways to go. The Committee is looking forward to a study of the assignment process that is being conducted by the Boston Area Research Initiative, and learning the impacts of the changes to the assignment process that were undertaken a few years ago.

Q: What is the Boston School Committee working on that students, parents and BPS staff should be excited about?

Loconto: First, we have a lot to be excited about in the current budget process, which sets the district’s course for the next school year (2018-2019). With a continued investment from Mayor Walsh in the financial health of BPS, we are investing more of our $1.1 billion dollar budget directly in schools to support our highest need students -- particularly those suffering trauma from violence, abuse or homelessness. At the same time, we are continuing our research-backed investments in early education, an extended school day, and the Excellence for All program, which provides a more equitable opportunity for students to grow and excel.

Longer-term, the goal is simplification. Some would describe our district as unapproachable. We’ve talked about the challenges that many parents face when they first choose to enroll a child in BPS. Schools may have different programs, facilities, partners, state rankings and so on. Some parents have the time and agency to organize the information and to digest it, visit schools, talk to other parents, teacher and administrators -- yet they may still feel overwhelmed or simply fear that they may be missing some critical information. Now imagine you’re new to the city, or the country, or have a language barrier or a limited educational background -- or you simply don’t have time because you are working multiple jobs to support a family.

The Committee and the district are concerned about these barriers. As one example, over a number of years the Committee’s School Quality Working Group has created a common language for describing schools across the district -- by simplifying the information available but also going beyond the state’s tiered ranking system that compares schools across the Commonwealth. We know what parents in our schools know that the state ranking seldom captures the true value of the schools in our district. We want parents to have a common understanding of the opportunities that all of our schools provide in a way that allows parents to make informed decisions in the best interests of their child.

Q: When choosing a school parents often say that some schools offer art, some offer music, some have a gym, some have a cafeteria or offer physical education. How come all schools will not offer the basics of academics, music, art, physical education and science? And what can be done to rectify that issue?

Loconto: Many of our schools were built in the early 1900s, and their facilities reflect the needs of those times. It was interesting to learn during last year’s facilities master planning process that many schools were built without kitchen facilities because, at the time, students went home for lunch! And as our student population has declined by more than half over the past five decades, to about 57,000 today, the district is left with many buildings that don’t reflect the needs of students seeking 21st Century skills and careers.

Today, with Mayor Walsh’s generous commitment of $1 billion to build new schools and renovate existing facilities over the next 10 years, the Committee and the district will work with parents, students, teachers and community members in the BuildBPS facilities master plan process to create schools that reflect today’s learning needs.

Q: In 2012 the former principal of the Curley School in Jamaica Plain closed the school’s library. Parents and the current principal have been working hard to get it reopened later this school year. How can a principal close a school’s library? Parents have told Jamaica Plain News that numerous Boston Public Schools lack library services. How is it possible that schools don’t have library services and what can be done to rectify that issue?

Loconto: The Committee recently asked the district to provide a plan for providing an appropriate level of library services across our schools in a way that reflects 21st Century learning needs. Additionally, the district should be looking to work with its partners like the Boston Public Library to provide access school communities with greater access to existing library services across the city.

At the same time, it is important to note that not every school is the same. Some schools would prefer to invest in technology in every classroom rather than have a centralized library, and some schools are adjacent to Boston Public Libraries. It’s important that schools have the autonomy to make decisions to use resources in ways that are most effective for their school communities.

Q: At-Large City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George has called for the city council to examine the current form of the Boston School Committee. Committee members are appointed by the mayor, but years ago it was elected. Some people think it should be a hybrid of appointed and elected. Obviously, you’re the chair of the current appointed committee, but how do you think the School Committee should be chosen?

Loconto: As my colleagues and I have said many times, we respect the will of the voters -- who have twice resoundingly voted in favor of an appointed school committee.  I’ve found in recent conversations on this subject that some community members are unaware that the City’s School Committee was indeed an elected body prior to 1993. My volunteer, appointed colleagues and I concentrate on the policies and finances of the district. In fact, we’ve had an uninterrupted streak of balanced budgets dating back to the the start of the appointed committee.

As a side note, and for those interested in discussing the merits of the appointed versus elected forms of the school committee, I’d suggest reading two books: Joe Cronin’s “Reforming Boston Schools, 1930-2006: Overcoming Corruption and Racial Segregation,” and the classic, “Common Ground,” by J. Anthony Lukas. My colleague, Vice Chairman Hardin Coleman, recommended the Cronin book when I was first appointed to the Committee. “Common Ground” was assigned reading for all to incoming first-year law students when I moved to Boston in the summer of 1999 to attend Northeastern University School of Law (our Dean, Roger Abrams, had a cameo in the books as a young lawyer working on the landmark school desegregation cases of the 1970s). I never imagined at the time that I’d have the opportunity to contribute to this important and continuing work today.

Q: Councilor Essaibi-George led a hearing regarding the Fiscal Year 2017 BPS budget. She said BPS Transportation promised a savings of $10 million for FY 2018 through “implementation of efficiency strategies.” But the savings were not realized. Is that true and why did the savings not happen? How much was saved?

Loconto: The Committee has received ongoing updates to the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, which has been a complicated year for transportation. While an innovative approach to routing allowed the district to reduce 50 routes from the yellow bus transportation network and the costs that go along with those buses (for instance, manpower and fuel), the district has seen an increase in door-to-door routes and out-of-district placements that reflect the special needs of certain students, as well as unanticipated costs related to staffing and traffic that contribute to higher costs for the system as a whole. Simply put, no one is happy with our district’s transportation costs, but the necessary structural work that we’ve discussed in this interview (facilities, assignment and grade configurations) will reduce these costs over the long-term.

Q: The school committee is responsible for hiring, managing and evaluating the Superintendent. How’s the Superintendent Chang doing? How often do you speak with him and what do you speak with him about?

Loconto: Superintendent Chang is a great partner for the Committee. We hired him to be an innovative leader for the district, and his work to reduce opportunity and achievement gaps across the district reflect his commitment to change the way that our schools deliver education and services in ways that reflect the socio-emotional needs of our students and the skills required by our city and its workforce economy. Dr. Chang and I speak on an almost-daily basis about the critical issues facing our schools and the strategies to address them. We’ll continue to work together to address the needs of all our students, with a particular focus on the voiceless and the most vulnerable, to create pathways to economic independence that will sustain our city and its residents for the future.

Q: How often do you speak with Mayor Walsh and what do you talk about?

Loconto: The Mayor and I have known one another for a while, and I believe we have a mutual trust and understanding. I respect the sheer breadth of issues that the Mayor has to deal with on a daily basis -- he has a big city to run, and he’s entrusted my colleagues and I to oversee the education of 57,000 students in a billion-dollar enterprise. The Mayor and I are in touch on a number of issues critical to the schools, including the FY19 budget. I am particularly proud of the Mayor’s efforts to create stable and sustainable funding sources for the district at the state and federal levels. His efforts to seek funding for universal pre-kindergarten in the city and to seek sensible reforms to Chapter 70 local aid funding for education that reflect the true needs of our city are commendable. My colleagues and I are happy to join with the Mayor in this work and are calling on our state legislators to partner with us in crafting sustainable funding solutions.

Q: Let’s talk about the failed plan to alter start and end times. Parents were not happy about elementary schools starting earlier, two hours earlier in some cases. What happened?

Loconto: This issue has been talked about quite a bit since December, but I think we can all take away some positives from the effort. First among them is that the policy that the Committee unanimously adopted remains valid -- we want our high school students starting later, a research-backed initiative that leads to better student outcomes. At the same time, the district and the Committee acknowledged that it underestimated the community’s reaction to earlier school start times for elementary school students -- a necessary trade-off to avoid adding greater costs to an already-large transportation budget. The district is working with the Citywide Parent Council to revisit the question of start times. I’m confident the district, in working with parents, can propose a new solution that reflects the original goals of the policy while taking into account the needs of the community.

Q: Do you think BPS will eventually have high schools start later?

Loconto: Knowing what we know about the brain science associated with when adolescents are ready to learn, for the sake of our students we must continue to find a system-wide solution to meet this need.

Q: How much does busing affect start and end times?

Loconto: I’d suggest that the question be posed in the reverse: with over 20 different start times distributed across the city’s 128 district schools (and the charter and parochial schools for which we are required to provide transportation by state law), start and end times dictate bus routing. The relative efficiency in a bus routing system dictates the costs necessary to run the system. Our present system of start and end times are the product of a series of individual decisions that don’t reflect an efficient, system-wide approach. We will get it right.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like people to know?

Loconto: There are great things happening in the Boston Public Schools! We have the highest graduation rate on record, we have more schools at levels 1 and 2 in the state accountability system than we’ve ever had, and we are doing nationally leading work in closing the achievement gaps and promoting socioemotional learning and wellness.

At the same time, we continue to tackle facilities and operations challenges that have grown over decades and a succession of administrations. As a parent, I know that when it comes time to register a four-year old for school, the district is asking families to make a 14-year commitment. The Mayor, the superintendent, and the Committee want parents to have a reasonable expectation for how their child will move through the district, and the efforts around BuildBPS and grade reconfiguration will help reduce transitions while providing 21st century classrooms.

While our work is never done, the district operates under a philosophy of continuous improvement, and will continue to make a high quality education in every classroom in every school, and for every child regardless of need, skill or interest, our singular goal.