By Seth Daniel
In e-mails obtained by the Patriot Bridge between Boston Public Schools (BPS) and Edwards Middle School officials regarding the towing of neighbors’ cars from the school parking lot in October, there is a trend that shows school officials dragged their feet on having a neighborhood meeting and let the towing situation spiral out of control as they prepared “strategy” and readied themselves for a fight against neighbors at an Oct. 27 public meeting about the towing.
The situation, like many, jumped in severity once social media posts began to be fed to school leaders by members of the staff, something that led leaders to radically misjudge the neighborhood intent at that Oct. 27 meeting.
BPS reviewed the e-mails and said they are glad that the situation has now been resolved with neighbors and want to continue moving forward in a cooperative manner with those in the immediate neighborhood on the compromise plan now in the works.
“BPS and the City of Boston have worked with increased collaboration with residents living near the Edwards Middle School to find a reasonable solution to the parking lot issue,” read a statement from BPS this week. “A section of the Edwards School parking lot is now dedicated to Charlestown resident parking, and the remainder is designated as parking for school use between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. It is important that the needs of the school and the neighborhood are balanced, and we are pleased that a thoughtful resolution to this issue has been reached.”
Before that resolution, however, came a great deal of animosity as a new policy was put in place without a public meeting, upending decades of informal agreements with neighbors on how to use the parking lot – though sometimes that might not have always worked smoothly for the school.
The situation began in September when dueling tow signs went into the lot, which is heavily used by residents in an area that severely lacks parking.
On Sept. 23, after new signs went up in the parking lot – some that said there would be 24/7 towing by Todisco and others that said towing would be between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. – Principal Rob Rametti began seeking help from the Central Office about what the signs meant due to questions from some abutters. No towing had yet commenced.
As early as that morning, it was suggested that a public meeting with neighbors should be scheduled. However, no meeting took place until after towing began, on Oct. 27.
School officials began talking about a scheduled public meeting, which came at the prompting of one resident, as early as Oct. 6.
“Are you aware of this meeting?” wrote Bob Harrington of BPS.
“I’ve heard through the grapevine,” wrote Makeeba McCreary, BPS chief of staff.
Principal Rametti confirmed that he had worked with Chris Breen from the Mayor’s Office and a neighbor to schedule that meeting.
Had the meeting happened earlier, things might have turned out differently, e-mails seem to indicate.
On Friday, Oct. 14, a long-time neighbor wrote to Breen and to BPS and Edwards officials about a change in the policy, begging for a meeting before any towing took place.
“There has been no discussion about this with the neighbors,” read the letter. “In fact, the principal put a flyer on cars in the lot merely asking to keep fire lanes clear. The neighborhood relies on these spaces.”
It was at that point that several in City government warned that the tow signs, which were confusing, were causing a lot of anxiety because they indicated Todisco could tow 24/7. Many were worried, e-mails indicated, that they could be towed at any point that the tow company felt like doing a sweep.
On Oct. 17, BPS Director of Facilities John Hanlon seems to have concluded that towing would begin prior to the meeting, which had been set more than a week before.
“I have no problem with our approach,” he wrote. “By the beginning of next week I’d like a report on all towing activity from the lot, and from other lots as a reference…One other thing. I need evidence/data indicating how may times in recent weeks (since school started) that cars have caused problems for the school, and what those problems were. I don’t think we’d be getting aggressive here if there haven’t been problems.”
However, Principal Rametti was not able to cite any problems.
“I don’t have any data or other statistics on the parking lot,” he wrote back later that day. “I did not realize there was an expectation that the principal keep those levels of records on the parking lot.”
He also pointed out that on that day, Oct. 17, Todisco did its first round of towing, taking out two cars. That same day, the School Police Officer reported to Rametti that someone had spray painted the signs all black over the weekend, and they would have to be taken down and replaced.
He indicated in that same e-mail that residents were getting angry and likely would get angrier as towing progressed. He said they simply wanted to be in the lot until 8 or 9 a.m., and that didn’t work because teachers arrive at 6 a.m. He suggested that police security be present at the Oct. 27 meeting as he expected something bad could happen.
“Anyhow, I certainly need district backup/support on this as this is spiraling,” he wrote.
On the following day, Tuesday, Oct. 18, five cars were towed. Then, on Oct. 19, another seven cars were towed by Todisco – all going to East Boston.
On Oct. 20, one week before the scheduled meeting, things really went out of control, as Todisco waited prior to 6 a.m. in the lot and towed 34 cars away. Complaints came in from all corners and the situation began to be stressed.
Instead of addressing the community, school officials seemed to suggest that the 34-car towing day was a set-up protest by Townies who wished to seek retribution for the earlier towing of cars – retribution that district officials thought was to jam up the school and prevent it from starting on time.
“The total (yesterday, Oct. 20) was 34; so, the 50-plus on the Facebook post was an exaggeration, but not by much,” wrote Rametti to Hanlon. “This does sound extreme to me, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel this is some sort of protest. The neighborhood is completely abuzz about this and has been for weeks, even before towing began and there is no way 4 cars just ‘didn’t know’ about the policy. Especially since a few cars were towed each of the prior days this week. The total went from 5 to 2 to 7 to 34. Odd.”
Replied Hanlon, “I heard about this and agree that it’s a statement. My concern yesterday was that Todisco could not have been able to tow all those cars away before teachers or even buses started showing up. Can you confirm whether or not this caused some disruption yesterday? I assume it did and I assume that was the point of the statement.”
That same day, another two cars were towed away from the lot.
Within that barrage of towing evolved a side issue, where an East Boston mother of a handicapped student was towed away while in a three-hour meeting inside the school about the specialized needs of her child.
“I am a second language speaking parent and my child has special needs, and for the first time five years I left the school feeling that they heard me,” wrote the mother in a letter to the school and the Mayor’s Office. “For our surprise, when we left we had the car towed from the school grounds. My advocate spoke with the principal, asked if at least he could call the tow company to vouch that we were in the building the whole time but he said that ‘was the City’s new rules and there are nothing he could do (about) it.’”
The tow company in Eastie told the mother they tried calling the school to speak with the principal, but no one would answer the phone.
She demanded reimbursement for the large tow fee from the schools.
On that day, things seemed to go absolutely sideways on the towing policy.
“This parking thing is a nightmare and I did not sign up for this,” wrote Rametti to Hanlon. “How can I be an instructional leader and do the work expected of me with all this? I am not a parking attendant…Now there’s a complaint from an educational advocate about me sent to the Mayor and Superintendent’s office.”
Hanlon apologized for what Rametti was going through, and at that point the two began to prepare for the Oct. 27 meeting, looking to pack the room and strategize against neighbor complaints.
“I also want to make sure we have as many people on our side at the meeting next week as possible, including elected officials,” wrote Hanlon. We should talk at some point early in the week about the plan for the meeting, and not just in terms of the parking lot either…”
Later that night, around 9 p.m., Rametti wrote Hanlon that neighbors were forming a group to try to shut the Edwards School down – all based on social media posts that were forwarded to him.
“It’s now 8:47 p.m. (on Oct. 21) and I’m getting word that more is brewing,” he wrote. “The neighbors have formed a group called ‘Residents Against the Edwards Middle School’ and they are lobbying to have the school closed. This is officially a nightmare. And the community meeting is going to be about far more than parking. I can only imagine the awful litany of complaints the neighbors are compiling about how awful our school is. Not even sure how all this happened.”
On that Monday, they appear to begin worrying that they didn’t actually own the lot – and found out that it was owned by the City and not BPS. For the record, in December 2015 the Boston Redevelopment Authority transferred the property to the Department of Neighborhood Development, who was working last spring to clear the title.
A tentative agenda for the Oct. 27 meeting was circulated on Oct. 25 and it included an explanation of the policy, a compromise proposal for parking and the unveiling of a program called the ‘#GetToKnowUs’ campaign. That 15 minute Campaign presentation by teachers from the school never actually happened during the Oct. 27 meeting as discussion of towing went long, and seemingly BPS officials misjudged the “tenor” of the neighborhood at the meeting.
That was likely because of the strategic preparations taking place prior to the meeting.
In one e-mail on Oct. 26, the day before the meeting, a school staff member forwarded a Facebook post from Charlestown’s Kim Mahoney – who spoke at the public meeting the next day about making changes without having a public meeting. Her Facebook post indicated a similar position. However, it was seen as an attack prior to the meeting.
“This Facebook post was shared with me (by a staff member),” wrote Rametti to BPS Regional Director Tommy Welch. “The person who shared it is warning me that the neighbors will gang up on me during the meeting. We kind of figured that, and so I think our plan is good to have John lead off. With that said, just keeping you in the loop on the ‘tenor’ of the neighborhood.”
On the day of the meeting, those conducting the meeting continued to strategize about how to upend the neighbors.
“It’s clear that people are coming certainly about parking, but also about everything under the sun too,” he wrote.
“I think we need to be strategic,” he continued. “Can we have a brief strategy check-in first?…Finally, I’ve received many additional reports that the neighbors are ‘coming for war’ and that I am the target of it all. I would greatly appreciate it if we could very clearly open up with a clarification that this is NOT my doing.”
In the afternoon of the day of the meeting, more Facebook posts began to circulate from Edwards staff to Rametti, including one anonymous post about how residents pay taxes and should be able to use the lot and that Mayor Martin Walsh was the one that messed up the long-time agreement.
“Just another post to get more of the ‘flavor’ of the rhetoric so we are ready to respond,” wrote Rametti to Welch and Hanlon.
Nothing was written between the parties after the meeting, which ended up being a contentious meeting focused specifically on towing and how the neighbors felt betrayed for towing having begun before the long-scheduled community meeting. That community meeting about possible towing had been scheduled in late September, and towing began on Oct. 17, according to the e-mails. BPS officials also made statements during the meeting about Charlestown residents not wanting kids from outside the community in their Town, which residents vociferously rebutted at the meeting, and statements which BPS officials later apologized for making.
The final e-mail communication came on Nov. 2 when a letter from a neighbor bashing the towing policy appeared in the Patriot Bridge.
“Just received this (letter),” wrote Rametti to Hanlon and Welch. “Any advice on the communications strategy? Should I involve the communications office at all?”
In the interim, BPS officials have worked out a new agreement to share half of the parking lot with the neighbors in a resident-only 24/7 parking lot. The remainder of the lot would fall under new towing rules from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Work to retrofit the lot and stripe it for such use started over Thanksgiving weekend.
That plan has been well-received, but a promised public meeting on that new configuration still has not happened, nor has it been scheduled.