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Zoning Fight Forcing School To Move Sparks Bias Charges in Boston Suburb

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By Mark Walsh

A zoning battle that resulted in a private, mostly black preschool's move from an affluent neighborhood in Cambridge, Mass., has shaken that politically liberal Boston suburb in recent weeks.

A candlelight vigil was held last week at the former site of the Commonwealth Day School, which was forced to move back across the Charles River to Boston after a continuing battle with its neighbors over a land-use permit made it impossible to register students for the new school year.

The school's neighbors on Brattle Street, which is described by some as home to the city's "Old Guard" elite, circulated a petition last year and fought the school's attempt to get a special permit needed to operate a primary school. Among the signers were some of the city's most prominent citizens, including a nationally known television personality and a major constitutional-law scholar.

Although the petitioners cited as main concerns the increases in traffic and parking problems, a number of their critics have charged that opposition to the school was fueled by race and class bias.

At one zoning hearing, said Robert F. Myette, headmaster of the school, "someone actually said we were going to change the complexion of the neighborhood."

Joan Wallace-Benjamin, president of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, whose son attended the school last year, said she became convinced after hearing neighbors voice their objections that "they didn't care about traffic; they just didn't want children of color educated in the building."

One neighbor of the school who helped lead the battle against it did not return repeated phone calls last week. Several other petition signers could not be reached for comment.

In published reports in the Boston press, however, petitioners have denied discriminatory intent. One Brattle Street resident who signed the petition was quoted by the Boston Globe as saying that "the minority issue was never discussed."

Legal Maneuvers

The 18-year-old school moved from Boston to Cambridge in 1988, after buying the large, mansion-style building that had previously served as a preparatory school for boys.

Neighbors were immediately suspicious, claimed Mr. Myette. One even obtained a cease-and-desist order that delayed the school's move. Later, they gathered 235 signatures and sought to block the school's occupancy permit and convert the building back into a residential-use-only structure.

But last October, the Cambridge Zoning Board of Appeals granted8the school both its occupancy permit and the special permit needed to expand to a primary school.

Neighbors then appealed the case to a state land court, whose backlog meant that the school's case could not be heard until this fall.

Because of the uncertainty over its future, Commonwealth Day School was unable to sign up students for the expanded grades. Lacking that means of expansion, officials made the decision to move back to Boston.

"When parents came in to check out the school, I couldn't lie to them" about its legal status, said Mr. Myette. "These parents wanted something definite."

The headmaster noted that the building's new occupant, a land-policy think tank, generates just as much traffic and represents no more of a "residential use" than the preschool did. Yet, 40 of the neighbors who signed petitions against the school, he said, came out in favor of a permit for the new owners.

Chiding City's 'Liberals'

Commonwealth's move back to Boston might have passed quietly, had Sheila Russell, a Cambridge City Council member, not expressed her distress over the neighborhood's actions. At the request of Ms. Russell and Mayor Alfred Vellucci, the Cambridge School Committee voted to lower flags at the city's publicel10lschools on opening day last month "to note the passing" of the Commonwealth Day School.

This revived the debate, especially after the local news media became aware that the signers of the original petitions against the school included several prominent citizens. In addition to a federal judge and the president of the local public-television station, they included Julia Child, whose nationally televised cooking show made her a celebrity, and Laurence Tribe, a professor at the Harvard University Law School and a leading constitutional scholar.

Mr. Tribe has disavowed his signing of the petition. But some in the community have pointed to the irony of so many leading exponents of liberal thought having appeared to have opposed a predominantly black school "in their back yard."

"The very ones who opposed it are the liberals in the city," said Ms. Russell. "I think what most of us object to the most is that the people who live here are always telling the rest of this city what they should do."

The mayor, who is retiring this year but is currently running for a seat on the school committee, has appointed a commission to investigate the matter.

Meanwhile, the school has rented space in Boston and is searching for a new permanent home.

"Our purpose is to give minority kids the best chance they can get,'' said Mr. Myette. "These people have denied these children the opportunity to go to school in such a beautiful place, with so many academic resources nearby at Harvard and m.i.t. They took that opportunity away from these kids."

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