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State should keep its hands off the Boston Public Schools

Mayor Michelle Wu testified before the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Does anyone trust the state to fix the Boston Public Schools?

That is a question that needs to be asked loudly, now that state officials have instituted a “review” of the school system that could be a step on the road to the state assuming control.

That explains why mayor Michelle Wu — along with City Councilor Julia Mejia — took the unusual step Tuesday of going to Malden to urge the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to keep its hands off.

“Receivership would be counterproductive in light of our ongoing transition and in light of the progress we’re making in collaboration with the state,” Wu said to the board. “No one is better equipped to accelerate the progress Boston has made than our Boston Public Schools communities and I’m confident this review will suggest the same.”

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This is certainly a perilous moment for the city’s schools. For a host of reasons, dissatisfaction is high. Too many schools are underperforming. The changes to exam school admissions aren’t especially popular. Superintendent Brenda Cassellius is departing, in what seems to be a reversal of Wu’s campaign trail pledge to support continuity in the system. A search for a new superintendent is underway, with a goal of being completed by June.

Meanwhile, the push for an elected school committee, which Wu opposes, shows no sign of losing steam.

Technically, the state’s review is a follow-up to one two years ago that found, to no one’s surprise, serious failings in many aspects of BPS. But it could also be a step to a state takeover of the school system, giving the state the right to appoint its leadership and control its funding.

Which would be a complete, unmitigated disaster — not least because it would give control of the BPS to an unaccountable group of state bureaucrats who may know little, and care less, about the needs of Boston’s schoolchildren.

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True to form, the state is playing coy about its intentions. Officials have maintained that receivership is just one of several options that could be on the table after the review, along with more palatable ones like providing the city with more resources.

But another wholesale change in leadership and priorities is the last thing BPS needs right now, at a time when everything is already seemingly in flux.

What would actually help out beleaguered schools?

The first order of business is getting the choice of a new superintendent right.

That means finding a leader who can effectively manage (and cut) a bloated bureaucracy, communicate effectively with school families and the broader community, and straighten out the department’s terrible internal operations.

This is a department that cannot accurately calculate the graduation rate of its students, or file the paperwork for its athletic teams to participate in state tournaments, or get all the students to the first day of school on time.

So there’s some pretty basic work for the new superintendent.

Wu insists that great leaders will be clamoring to run the BPS, that this city where public education was born is a land of opportunity. To which I say: Maybe.

Why? Because this is also a city that has chewed up and spit out a succession of superintendents, where the politics are beyond daunting, and where it isn’t clear what sort of school committee you’ll be working for two years from now. All of which could quite reasonably give applicants pause.

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So I am very curious to see what the pool of applicants really ends up looking like.

But what this school system needs right now, besides a strong leader, is to set a course and stick to it for a few years. The lesson of the last decade of revolving-door leadership is that constant resetting hasn’t improved anything. And I can’t think of one good reason why state control would work any better. It doesn’t come with a magic wand.

Receivership is a relic of a bygone era when solons on Beacon Hill believed they knew better than the rubes in the cities and towns what broken agencies needed.

They didn’t, and still don’t.

Boston’s schools are Boston’s crisis. The city, not the state, is the right place to look for solutions.


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.