In his proposal to overhaul the Boston Public Schools, Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley would have made Mayor Michelle Wu directly accountable to him for improving schools and imposed on her short deadlines for addressing problems that were years in the making.
The proposal, which he gave to her two weeks ago and the Globe obtained Thursday under a city public records request, is a vastly different approach than the counteroffer that Wu submitted last week, according to a Globe review of the proposals. Her approach favors a partnership with the state. The two sides are negotiating a potential compromise.
Riley’s original proposal to Wu would put the ultimate responsibility of executing the changes on the mayor, not the BPS leadership or its school committee. She would have been the only signatory on the document and she frequently would have confronted timelines of only a few months to ensure BPS got the work done as it prepares to change superintendents this summer.
The arrangement could have resulted in an awkward dynamic: the newly elected mayor of the state’s largest city, the first woman of color to be elected to that office, would have been effectively reporting to a state bureaucrat. But it also reflects an unfortunate reality in the BPS: Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will be leaving in a few weeks, which in turn would make her signature pointless, while the School Committee is still in the midst of conducting its third superintendent search in seven years.
By contrast, Wu’s proposal called for a partnership with the state that spells out an array of commitments for both sides to follow through on. (Riley’s proposal would not obligate his office to do that much.)
Riley, a BPS parent and former BPS administrator, declined to comment on his proposal, which he initially presented to Wu on May 20 in a meeting with Governor Charlie Baker. Wu countered a few days later.
In an interview Thursday, Wu, who also is a BPS parent, was optimistic about reaching agreement soon.
“Our proposal represents a partnership with the state that would set BPS up for success right away and provide clarity and accountability to some of the big challenges that we need to tackle all within a leadership transition for the district,” Wu said. “We want to be held accountable and we intend to move with as much urgency as possible. . . . Our kids deserve no less than that.”
Representatives for the city and the state are expected to resume talks Friday. The following are some key differences the two sides are working through:
A state edict versus a partnership approach
Riley’s proposal put nearly all responsibility on the mayor for ensuring the prescribed changes for BPS get done. He sought to have only Wu sign the agreement and didn’t designate a place in the proposal for any BPS official or even himself to signThat’s in sharp contrast to a separate agreement the state and city struck more than two years ago that first established a partnership for improvement between them, which has yielded mixed results. That earlier agreement was signed by Riley and Cassellius and not by then-mayor Martin J. Walsh, according to a copy of that agreement.
Riley also asked Wu, directly above her signature, to agree that “she will always put the interests of BPS students first, ahead of adults.”
By contrast, Wu requested a partnership that would assign various tasks each to BPS and the state education department. She proposed that Riley, herself, Cassellius, and School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson would all sign a final agreement.
And in her proposal, the mayor removed the commitment about always putting students before adults. Wu said student needs already drive her decision-making.
“I think about our young people constantly,” she said. “It’s how I see every single issue, and our document reflects a partnership between the city and state that would be collaborative, productive, and sustainable and not patronizing.”
Riley proposed that at least 95 percent of school buses must arrive on time and that not a single bus route would be without assigned drivers. Missing drivers have been a chronic problem this school year that has caused students to miss classes. Wu, by contrast, suggested a slightly lower on-time performance for buses of 93 percent and did not commit to having any uncovered bus routes.
However, the mayor proposed additional measures including a diagnostic review of school transportation “to analyze efficiency, performance, equity, and cost.” Transportation spending accounts for about 10 percent of the school system’s $1.3 billion budget.
Riley sought to have BPS develop a plan to allow more students with disabilities at every school to be assigned to regular classrooms instead of being segregated in separate rooms, as the latter practice has disproportionately kept more Black and Latino students with disabilities isolated from the rest of the school population. He proposed a Nov. 1 deadline to create a policy to implement the plan.
Wu instead suggested a Feb. 1, 2023, deadline. She also requested the state provide technical support to help BPS create better individualized educational plans for each student with disabilities, a step that was absent from Riley’s original proposal.
Riley would set an Aug. 15 deadline for BPS to finalize a strategic plan to overhaul programs for students learning English. (BPS has been trying for more than a year to develop such a plan, but has had difficulty getting buy-in from educators, advocates, and families.)
Wu suggested an Oct. 1 deadline and also requested the state take on six tasks, such as loosening teacher certification rules to allow more educators to work with English learners, and to offer MCAS science and math tests to students in all grade levels in their native language.
There are a number of agreements surrounding student safety, but in her proposal, Wu excluded some language from Riley’s that would obligate BPS to “respond in a timely manner to parent and guardian concerns, including allegations of bullying.” The request comes amid concerns among families that BPS isn’t responding adequately and fast enough to bullying and other complaints, especially in light of the mishandling of several instances at Mission Hill K-8 that led to being closed at the end of this school year.
Wu said BPS and her administration are already working to address such concerns.
“We need to respond to all parents’ and guardians’ concerns and I hear many of them every week when I have school pickup, and there’s much more that is not reflected in this legal binding document with the state that represents what our students deserve and what we are working urgently on every day,” she said. ”We weren’t omitting anything or removing obligations or intentions.”
Riley called for BPS to have a long-term facilities plan by the end of the next school year, and to have fully renovated student bathrooms at 15 schools, which would have been chosen with approval by the state.
Wu countered with a Dec. 31, 2023, deadline for a long-term facilities plan and but would not commit to renovating a specific number of student bathrooms. Instead she proposed working in conjunction with the state to ensure student bathrooms are “properly maintained throughout the school year.” She also wants the state education department to work with BPS to secure more money from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for new school construction and major building renovations.
Riley didn’t include an offer of additional state funds to implement the changes. Boston is slated to receive around $432 million in federal stimulus money for education. Wu is asking the state to kick in $10 million for the improvement plan..
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to email@example.com.
James Vaznis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.