State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley hammered Boston Public Schools for its “bloated” central office and “unconscionable” transportation failures in his first public comments Tuesday on a new state review of the district, but held off on recommending any takeover of city schools, saying he remains “hopeful and optimistic” that the state and city can reach agreement on a plan for urgent improvement.
Addressing the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at its monthly meeting, as dozens of people protested outside and dozens more were turned away from the packed meeting room, Riley said he will give Mayor Michelle Wu a chance to respond to his initial proposal for next steps. Details of that plan have not been released to the public.
“I want to be respectful of the mayor, and give her time and space to see if she is willing to provide us with the assurances that things are going to improve for our children,” Riley told the board.
Wu, who met with Riley and Governor Charlie Baker to review the initial proposal last week, said she intends to submit a counterproposal to the state by Friday, after which the two sides plan further discussion. She is seeking to hold onto authority over the the district.
The tense negotiations come at a critical moment for BPS and its 49,000 students, as the search for the district’s next superintendent enters its final phase, and candidate interviews begin next week. Meanwhile, another quest is under way to restore an elected School Committee, instead of one appointed by the mayor, a switch overwhelmingly approved by voters.
A majority of the state board endorsed a patient approach on Tuesday, urging the commissioner to take time to listen and collaborate with city stakeholders. Only one, Matt Hills, a former school committee chair in Newton, pushed for greater urgency, and questioned if more negotiation with the city is likely to bring cooperation or real change.
“If God was the superintendent [in Boston], God would need receivership to be effective here,” said Hills, drawing angry murmurs from meeting attendees who oppose a takeover. “The sole lens you should be looking at . . . is how students will be better served. When is enough enough, and when are you prepared to act?”
The discussion came one day after the release of the state’s latest report on Boston schools, which tracked the district’s progress since 2020 in addressing a series of critical shortcomings. The review, part of an ongoing process of state oversight, found a few encouraging results, but mostly highlighted wide swaths of continuing stagnation, intensifying fears that the state’s next step will be to seize control of local schools, as it has done elsewhere in the state.
For now at least, the state’s approach appears to be gentler than some had feared. Board members — who would need to vote to approve a state receivership — appeared in no hurry to call the question. Several acknowledged the passionate opposition to receivership voiced by students, parents, teachers and elected officials who testified at the meeting, and some expressed doubt that a full state takeover could work in the face of such aversion.
James Morton, the vice chairman, said the goal should be a “negotiated plan to address six or seven critical core needs,” undertaken “with a collaborative spirit.” Board member Paymon Rouhanifard, a former superintendent in Camden, N.J., invoked the impact of “decades of institutional racism” in the current state of BPS, and called for a sensitive approach.
“I think you can pathologize a community, and [impact] young people,” he said. “To do it delicately is the task at hand.”
Josiehanna Colon, a student at New Mission High School who testified Tuesday, said she has felt the impact of state oversight. Too much of her education has been centered around standardized testing, she said; further intervention would likely bring more emphasis on tests and less diverse curriculum. “I’m angry that our voices may be ignored,” she said, “and that again and again we care about a test score instead of a child.”
The meeting, which lasted more than four hours and included a detailed presentation on the contents of the report as well as lengthy public testimony, was originally scheduled to take place in the auditorium at Wellesley High School, which seats 700 people. Leaders in the suburban district asked state officials to move the gathering elsewhere after learning that attendance would be high and protests could be held, potentially disrupting their school day.
Relocated to a government building in Boston, the much smaller meeting room could not accommodate all attendees, dozens of whom sat on the floor in a hallway outside the room, watching the livestreamed meeting on their cellphones. Several parents in attendance said they were denied the opportunity to speak at the meeting after submitting formal requests; two speakers chose to split their time with others who were shut out.
Those who did testify included Wu, state Senators Sonia Chang-Díaz (also a gubernatorial candidate) and Lydia Edwards, state Representative Liz Miranda, and five City Council members. Voices in favor of takeover were few, but Mary Tamer, a former Boston School Committee member, vigorously endorsed state intervention.
“When administrators shun mandated reporting laws, this is a crisis that requires intervention,” she said. “When you embark on superintendent searches every two years and expect different results, this is a crisis that requires intervention. . . . How many more 200-page reports do we have to read before we do something?”
Some parents of children with disabilities have also called for state intervention, which they see as their only hope of achieving educational equity in the face of long-unyielding service gaps. The state review released Monday found that BPS continues to struggle to meet the needs of its many English learners and students with disabilities, diminishing the prospects of tens of thousands of children.
More common at Tuesday’s meeting were the sentiments of Chang-Diaz, who asked the board not to “erode parent voice and democracy,” and of City Councilor Kendra Lara, who questioned why the current moment — when women of color have assumed unprecedented power — is seen as the right moment for a takeover.
Leila Parks, a parent and teacher, called for a simpler, grass-roots approach.
“If you want to help BPS, don’t waste time with top-down interventions and receivership,” she said. “Ask each school what it needs to succeed — please, just ask.”
Globe staff writer Adria Watson contributed to this report.