Safe to say that few saw Friday’s turn of events at Boston Public Schools coming.
For more than a month, the city and the state have been in discussions about the troubled district’s future, with two basic scenarios thought to be on the table: either both sides reach an agreement on an improvement plan, or the state moves to take over the district and impose one.
Talks began after a devastating state audit documented the “entrenched dysfunction” in the district, where thousands of children attend some of the worst-performing schools in the state. In a nearly 200-page report, state auditors described systemic issues such as uncovered bus routes, inaccurate data reporting, and little to no progress meeting the needs of English learners, students with disabilities, and students at Boston’s lowest-performing schools.
Confronted with such chronically abysmal performance, in the largest and one of the best-funded districts in Massachusetts, the state could hardly have just turned a blind eye.
The efforts to reach a deal failed, though, largely because of the reluctance of Mayor Michelle Wu to commit to the kind of aggressive improvements that state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley wanted.
But instead of taking over the district and appointing a receiver, as some had expected, on Friday Riley threw a curveball, announcing he would recommend the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education designate the district as underperforming and appoint a monitor to oversee it.
A monitor, the state took pains to emphasize, is not the same as a receiver. The city will remain in control of the 46,000-student school system. But it will have to submit a district-wide turnaround plan to the monitor, who could reject it if it doesn’t fulfill the state’s requirements. If Boston doesn’t improve its schools enough, Riley said, appointing a monitor now does not foreclose naming a receiver later.
It’s not a plot twist that fully satisfies anyone.
A deal would have been the best outcome, and it’s highly disappointing that the two sides couldn’t reach one. The fault for that lies largely with Wu. Even though the city and state were mostly in alignment on major priorities, like improving special education and services for English language learners, the city dug in its heels on refusing to let the state oversee its data collection efforts.
That was a bizarre place to draw a line in the sand. The BPS central office has reported false or misleading data in a number of important areas, including graduation rates and bus on-time performance, and has clearly shown it can’t be trusted by parents or state regulators. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Wu administration was afraid of what else the state might find if it audited the district’s numbers. Wu is supposedly all for transparency. If there’s nothing to hide, why not open the door to an independent auditor?
The failure to reach a deal also means that, at least for now, the city won’t get the $10 million it had requested from the state, and it won’t be formally committed to the improvement deadlines that would have been part of an agreement.
The appointment of a monitor also raises the prospect of continued uncertainty if that person rejects whatever turnaround plan the city offers. It would have been better for a new superintendent to come in with a signed roadmap that both sides have already agreed to. Now the next superintendent will have to devise a plan and get it approved by the state.
Two finalists for the superintendent position, Tommy Welch and Mary Skipper, had their public job interviews this week. The fact that the city only had two finalists is a testament to the debilitating impact of the protracted negotiations with the state. Had the city quickly reached a deal with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, it would have ended the uncertainty around the state’s future role.
The state education board will vote on Tuesday on Riley’s recommendation to declare the district underperforming and appoint a monitor. That means Riley and Wu, in theory, could still reach a deal before then. It’s clearly in the best interest of the mayor to do so, given that the School Committee is set to pick a new superintendent imminently. Wouldn’t Wu want to set the incoming leader up for success and wrap up the pending business with the state?
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.