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Massachusetts education commissioner will recommend declaring Boston schools underperforming

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley plans to ask his board on Tuesday to declare the Boston Public Schools “underperforming,” a move that will allow the state to bring in a monitor to oversee improvement efforts in the district.Sam Doran/Pool

Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley announced Friday he will seek to have Boston Public Schools declared an underperforming district, a rare move that follows a breakdown in negotiations with Mayor Michelle Wu on a district improvement plan.

Riley’s recommendation, which requires approval from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, falls short of a state takeover of the 49,000-student district, which many city leaders, teachers, and families feared might happen. But it would allow Riley to gain sole authority to approve a district-improvement plan and the ability to appoint a monitor to oversee its implementation and progress.

If the board approves the recommendation at its meeting Tuesday, BPS would officially become underperforming on July 1. The board has taken such action at least five times over the last two decades; two of those districts, Holyoke and Southbridge, are now in receivership, while the others improved enough to lose the designation.

The move comes as the School Committee is preparing to select a new superintendent next Wednesday, choosing between two finalists, Mary Skipper, superintendent of Somerville schools, and Tommy Welch, an assistant superintendent in Boston whose children attend BPS.

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“We tried our best to reach an agreement, but at the end of the day, we had to move forward,” Riley said in an interview with the Globe. “And we sense an urgency here with the myriad of problems in the district that we need people to work on.”

But he added, “We don’t think receivership is appropriate at this time.”

The new superintendent will have full authority to run the district, Riley said, and the resulting district-improvement plan developed under the status of an underperforming district will aid the superintendent in overhauling BPS. Under state rules, BPS would develop the plan with input from administrators, teachers, parents, students, and community members.

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Wu said she was surprised by Riley’s decision to halt the negotiations and seek to declare the district underperforming. She said Riley never brought up the possibility of making that kind of declaration previously and she had been optimistic a deal would be struck.

“Frankly, the timing and escalation is disappointing,” Wu said. “The district and our city share the concern and urgency to address these big issues and ensure that we have quality data to measure our progress. We need to have a clear timeline and scope embedded in this document for it to be a true partnership that will empower local solutions.”

Many educators and families have long argued that labeling districts as “underperforming” can be stigmatizing and ultimately harm morale rather than galvanizing a community to work together on improvements.

“Instead of applying unhelpful labels and top-down measures to districts in need of support, the state should be focused on collaboration, partnership and a more democratically driven process to improve academic outcomes,” said Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union.

Riley and Wu had been trying to reach a deal on district improvement efforts since last month, following a state review that found BPS was failing to make enough progress over the last two years or lost ground in addressing the long-standing problems, including low standardized test scores, late running school buses, systemic disarray in its special education department, and compliance problems with its English learner programs.

Many BPS supporters have characterized the state’s criticisms as unfair, noting Boston like other districts nationwide had to completely change the way it operated during the pandemic when school buildings were closed.

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The city submitted its most recent response to the state’s proposal Friday, with only two issues remaining unresolved. The city wants the district-improvement plan to end on Dec. 31, 2023; the state set no expiration date. The city also wants BPS to approve the scope of work for an independent data monitor instead of just being consulted on it.

A major sticking point has been over how to handle data discrepancies. The state review found many data inaccuracies, including BPS excluding no-show school buses from its calculations of late buses.

A Globe review of city audits earlier this year also found several raised concerns about the accuracy of high school graduation data BPS is required to collect to comply with federal Title 1 grant funding, which supports districts with large populations of low-income students.

Riley said BPS data problems are significant because inaccurate data could prompt the US Department of Education to withhold large amounts of money for the state, which would impact BPS and other districts statewide. The state reports a whole range of data provided by local districts to comply with federal grant requirements.

“The most important thing is parents deserve to know the truth,” said Riley, noting that many parents rely on data to make decisions about where to send their children to school and that districts need accurate data to drive improvement.

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Wu said the two sides were extremely close in resolving the data monitoring issues, but added “It’s important as well to have a clear timeline and scope.”

Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, said she was disappointed that Riley and Wu couldn’t reach what she characterized as a “bare bones agreement,” while also expressing frustration over BPS’ inaccurate data. Many of the no-show buses are supposed to bring students with disabilities to school.

“Egos need to be left outside and a jointly approved data auditor that has the ability to report the facts should not be the breaking point,” she said. “The increased communications from our special education families make it clear that our neuro-diverse students are not being serviced appropriately and inaccurate information is being provided from the Office of Special Education which continues to demonstrate that there is systemic disarray and no accountability.”

Ruby Reyes, executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, slammed Riley’s recommendation as “an 11th-hour power play, at the expense of our BPS students and families.”

“Riley’s bullying is not what is needed in Boston or anywhere else,” Reyes said in a statement.

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.


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him @globevaznis.