Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and the state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley came to an eleventh hour agreement Monday to prevent the state from designating the district “underperforming” and stepping up oversight of the district.
The agreement between the state and city, announced Monday night, details district improvement efforts following a state review that found Boston Public Schools was failing to make enough progress in addressing long-standing problems, including providing services to English learners and students in special education.
“These commitments will set up the district for success right away,” said Wu in an interview Monday night. “I’m eager and ready for the work ahead.”
The deal comes after weeks of negotiations and political brinksmanship that, at times, played out before the public. After the state in May released its audit outlining chronic dysfunction in Boston Public Schools, Wu pushed back on the state’s initial proposals to improve the district, which would have made her directly accountable to Riley for improving schools and imposed short deadlines for addressing problems. She instead called for a “partnership” with the state.
And when talks broke down last week, the state upped the ante by recommending Boston receive more oversight and be labeled underperforming, an embarrassing designation that can take years to reverse.
The negotiations have cast a feeling of uncertainty over the district, as it searches for a new superintendent. The Boston School Committee meets Wednesday to vote on two candidates: Mary Skipper, the Somerville superintendent; and Tommy Welch, a regional school superintendent in Boston Public Schools and BPS parent.
Welch has said he could begin Friday, after outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius departs. Skipper has committed to staying in Somerville until the fall.
The agreement includes deadlines as early as August for the city and school system to complete many steps.
That timeline could play a role in deciding who becomes the next superintendent, since only Welch would be available to start working before then. Wu, however, said the district will have a “strong acting superintendent in place” and said the district has already started working to meet the most “urgent deadlines.”
Deputy Superintendent of Academics Drew Echelson would serve as acting superintendent until a permanent superintendent takes the helm.
Although many of the negotiations were reported in the press, some parents expressed frustration that something so potentially consequential for the district wasn’t explained directly to parents by city and district representatives. Just as the city asks for parent and community opinion when it hires a new superintendent, the city should have consulted parents about the state intervention, said Vernée Wilkinson, director of the family advisory board for SchoolFacts Boston, a parent advocacy organization.
“How much of an insider do you need to be to know what’s going on?,” said Wilkinson. “That needs to change yesterday.”
Some parents with long-standing complaints said it shouldn’t have taken a protracted and sometimes bruising negotiation for Boston to commit to improve services for students in special education.
“These are basic items that should have been done by BPS without intervention from the state,” said Roxi Harvey, chair of Boston’s Special Education Parent Advisory Board.
For now, Monday’s deal has shelved state conversations about labeling the district “underperforming” or recommending taking control of the district. The state could revive those conversations if the city and school system fail to follow through on the commitments outlined in the agreement.
“While disaster has been averted, we will remain united and vigilant in our commitment to creating the schools our students and our communities deserve,” said Boston Teachers Union president Jessica Tang.
Although Wu said the document represents joint priorities for the city and state, she added, “Our standards for BPS are far higher than the collection of agreements outlined here.”
Among other provisions, the city and school system have agreed to begin using an “improved, robust process for managing, responding to and resolving” parent complaints by Aug. 15.
The district will rewrite improvement plans for underperforming schools and devise a way to equitably fund them. School leaders will also have to report quarterly to the Boston School Committee on their schools’ progress.
The district will “redesign” special education services to ensure all students learn in the least restrictive environment and to provide more options for students with disabilities. The agreement also requires that by Aug. 15 the district develop a policy and procedure manual for special education and train staff on those policies at the beginning of the school year.
The city also has committed to ensuring that English learners, and particularly those with disabilities, get appropriate services and to creating a plan to expand instruction in students’ native languages.
Also, the city will create a “safe, effective, and responsive” busing system, ensuring that 95 percent of buses arrive on time each month.
School buildings will get more attention under the agreement as well. BPS will renovate bathrooms in at least 15 campuses next year and the city will create a long-term facilities plan by December 2023. Wu had already committed to overhauling Boston’s school facilities; last month she unveiled her “Green New Deal,” which puts $2 billion toward such efforts, beginning with 14 new school buildings or major renovations.
One obstacle that held up the agreement involved hiring an independent auditor to analyze the integrity of the data collected and reported by Boston Public Schools. City audits show Boston possibly overstated its graduation rates for several years and the district has reported inaccurate bus arrival information, according to the state. Under Monday’s agreement, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will hire an independent auditor by Aug. 15 to analyze BPS data on a “regular basis.” The auditor also will receive “full access” to all district data across all academic and operational functions, according to the agreement.
For its part, the state would provide technical assistance along with $10 million in grants, services, and other resources over a three-year period to support the improvements.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education will discuss the deal at its Tuesday meeting, but the joint agreement does not require the board’s approval. Under the agreement, Wu and the school leaders will make “regular reports” on the improvement plan to the Boston School Committee, starting by Aug. 31.
“Students, families, and educators will be watching,” said Will Austin, chief executive of Boston Schools Fund. “A successful partnership can’t just focus on processes and reporting. The partnership must result in equitable outcomes for English learners, Black and Latino students, students with disabilities.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.