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Boston officials negotiating agreement with state on schools, superintendent tells School Committee

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will update the School Committee Wednesday on the recently-released state review of the district.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

At the School Committee’s first meeting since the state released a scathing analysis of Boston Public Schools, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said Wednesday the district is working to negotiate an agreement to stave off a state takeover.

The meeting was the committee’s first opportunity to discuss the district’s problems since the state released its review Monday, which described “entrenched dysfunction” in the district.

The review cited chronically late buses, aging facilities, the segregation of students of color with disabilities from their peers, and English learner programs that don’t comply with federal law.

Cassellius and Mayor Michelle Wu have already provided a response to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Cassellius said, just a day after the education board meeting Tuesday where Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said he was hopeful an agreement could be reached.

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Riley presented a draft memorandum of understanding to the mayor and superintendent Friday, the Globe previously reported.

“We have an opportunity to stave off receivership by humbling ourselves and taking it on the chin that there are things that we need to do,” committee chairwoman Jeri Robinson said. “We must do better than this.”

Once city and state officials have reached an agreement, it will be brought to the School Committee for discussion and possibly a vote, the superintendent said. The deal would be a successor agreement to the memorandum of understanding signed in March 2020, just before the district’s schools were closed in response to the pandemic.

Assistant Superintendent Drew Echelson presented a summary of the state’s review. He emphasized the impact of the pandemic on the district’s ability to make progress and highlighted initiatives for which the district received praise, such as raising high school graduation standards to align with entry requirements to the state’s public universities.

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But Echelson made clear that the state is demanding serious improvement.

“The key areas that need dramatic and swift improvement are really consistent with BPS’s own analysis of our work,” Echelson said. “I’m satisfied that we’re continuing to make progress and agree with DESE’s aggressiveness.”

School Committee members questioned what the board’s role would be in any new agreement with the state, noting that they were specifically called out in the state review for only having special education as an agenda item once in the last two years. The committee’s role is of particular relevance with the impending appointment of a new superintendent.

“This is going to have to be an all-hands-on-deck approach,” said Michael O’Neill, committee vice chairman. “We need to understand this potential agreement and think about how we’re going to provide oversight and make sure we’re meeting commitments made under it.”

Cassellius said she would clarify with Riley whether the School Committee would need to approve an agreement. Robinson, the committee chairwoman, said that Open Meeting Law prevents the board from holding strategic meetings on the potential agreement, although she and the superintendent speak every day.

Committee members also peppered the superintendent with specific questions about serving special education and English language learner students. Robinson also raised data collection and reporting issues as a particular cause for concern.

“These are not pandemic related,” Robinson said “Some of these have been going on for decades and decades and decades, and they’ve got to stop, period.”

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For example, the district included two schools with bathrooms in need of renovation on a list it provided to the state of 29 schools with completed bathroom renovations — an inaccuracy DESE was able to identify because of recent site visits, according to the review.

The committee also heard from community members who called for urgency on many of the same issues highlighted in the review, including special education and English learner instruction.

“These are not challenges — they are emergencies,” said Kelsey Brendel, the parent of a 7-year-old special education student. “This is not about who has control, or receivership. It’s about responsibility.”

BPS and its 49,000 students would be at a critical juncture even absent the possibility of state intervention, as an impending timeline approaches to hire a new superintendent by June. The search process has been unusually fast, with limited time available after Cassellius’s departure was announced in February.

The search committee plans to conduct a first round of virtual interviews on June 1 and 2 and a second in-person round a week later, search committee chairwoman Pam Eddinger told the School Committee Wednesday. The School Committee would publicly interview the finalists in mid-June.

Reaching an agreement with the state is one of Cassellius’s priorities before her departure, she said.

“We want to resolve this matter and get an agreement with the commissioner ... so that we can ensure there’s a strong foundation and a strong transition for the next superintendent,” Cassellius said.

The review was intended in part to provide a roadmap to the incoming superintendent, Echelson said in his presentation.

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The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to thegreatdivide@globe.com.


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.