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Progress stalls on agreement to avert Boston school takeover, city officials say

Commissioner Jeff Riley continues to balk at Mayor Michelle Wu’s proposed “partnership” between the city and state.

“We are disappointed that [the state’s] proposed structure for the Systemic Improvement Plan and the limited commitments expressed in your separate letter do not reflect the partnership we had proposed,'' Mayor Michelle Wu said in a letter to the state.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

The state’s latest proposal in negotiations with the city to avert a takeover of Boston Public Schools has widened the gap between the two sides, Mayor Michelle Wu said Wednesday.

Wu’s public assessment follows a letter she and two school district officials sent Tuesday to Education Commissioner Jeff Riley requesting further discussions to reach a deal.

Negotiators from Boston Public Schools and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education “have been working diligently over the last few weeks on specific details and had been making progress towards an agreement,” Wu said in a statement. “It’s disappointing that the Commissioner’s latest response seems to backtrack and take us further apart, because we’re ready to focus on the work ahead.”

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A state Education Department spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from the Globe Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, the state had yet to respond to the city’s letter.

Talks are hung up on three key issues, according to the letter sent by Wu, School Committee Chairwoman Jeri Robinson, and outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

The city’s letter said local leaders have agreed to nearly all the steps in the state’s original May 20 proposal. But the overall structure of the agreement, the timelines for some of the steps, and important details on the hiring of an independent data auditor remain unsettled.

The negotiations follow a blistering state review, released in May, that found the school system remains largely stuck in “entrenched dysfunction.” The apparent stalemate in efforts to stave off a potential state takeover of the schools comes at a crucial moment, with public interviews of the two finalists for the district’s next superintendent to begin Thursday.

The latest proposal from the state calls for Cassellius to sign the final agreement along with Wu. That’s a change from its original requirement that the mayor would be the only signatory. If negotiations drag on past Cassellius’ departure at the end of June, the next schools chief could join a district still in the midst of negotiations — or the mayor and School Committee chairwoman could be left negotiating without a permanent superintendent in their corner.

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The lack of an agreement may cast a shadow over Thursday and Friday’s superintendent interviews, with the candidates not knowing what commitments they may be bound to should they be selected.

The state’s latest proposal, obtained by the Globe through a public records request, was delivered to the city on Friday, along with a request that the mayor respond no later than Tuesday. The state’s proposal continues to lay out an oversight role for the state, contrary to the partnership proposed by Wu.

“As you know, one of the sticking points in our discussions has been the structure of the document,” Riley wrote in a letter accompanying the proposal. The Education Department’s role will be “to continue to monitor the district and provide oversight in its capacity as the State Education Authority.”

The administration’s proposal includes an appendix of its commitments, but the city wants those promises incorporated directly in the plan.

“We believe that ensuring all students have access to an excellent public education is a shared responsibility of school districts, municipalities and the state,” Wu, Robinson and Cassellius wrote. “We are disappointed that [the state’s] proposed structure for the Systemic Improvement Plan and the limited commitments expressed in your separate letter do not reflect the partnership we had proposed.”

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The Boston officials also took issue with the state’s proposed data auditing arrangement. While they had already agreed to hire an independent auditor, approved by the state, to review the district’s data quality and reporting, the state’s proposal from last Friday envisions an Education Department representative working with a state-hired auditor on the review. It also calls for a new data working group, chaired by a state appointee, that would monitor data quality indefinitely.

The state’s demands could create “a version of top-down control that would constitute a form of receivership,” Wu, Robinson, and Cassellius wrote.

Finally, the two sides remain at odds over a number of timelines in the improvement plan. For example, the state wants the district to produce a new master facilities plan by June 30, 2023, while Boston officials want an additional six months, which would allow the district to first complete an assessment of its facilities.

“With a new Superintendent coming on board, we must set urgent and actionable work plans that set the district up for success, rather than impose unrealistic deadlines that do not support systemic reform,” the Boston officials wrote in their letter.

On most other issues, Boston and state leaders have come together on key details, including making Cassellius and Robinson, not just Wu, signatories of the agreement. The state also has agreed to Wu’s request for $10 million to support the plan, albeit with particular purposes in mind. Plans for improving transportation and student safety, in particular, are more or less decided.

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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.