One year after narrowly avoiding state takeover and an embarrassing “underperforming” designation, Boston Public Schools has blown past deadlines for meeting key milestones on its state-mandated improvement plan, according to State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.
Riley lambasted the district Tuesday for failing to hire a chief to lead the special education department or create a plan, originally due last November, to transition special education students into general education classrooms. He also criticized BPS for asking for more time to renovate its school bathrooms and falling short of a school bus on-time arrival rate of 95 percent.
“The administration signed a document saying that they would hit their goals. At best we can say their grade would be incomplete,” Riley told state education board members during a regularly scheduled meeting. “But I expect us to have a different discussion with this board starting if the buses aren’t running to great capacity in the fall, if the special education plan isn’t in place, if the agreed upon bathrooms aren’t fully redone, if the right people aren’t hired for special education, you will be hearing more from us.”
In response to Riley’s criticism, a BPS spokesman said the district has taken “immediate action” toward solving the most urgent issues outlined in the state improvement plan. Under Superintendent Mary Skipper, who took the helm at the end of September, the district has, for example, commissioned expert consultants to review and recommend fixes to student safety, transportation, and special education, as well as its data collection and reporting processes. As part of its agreement to improve school buildings, BPS anticipates releasing a facilities condition assessment in August and a long-term facilities plan in December.
“The work of the [state improvement plan] is addressing the long-standing broken systems that have persisted for decades in Boston,” said BPS spokesman Max Baker, in a statement to the Globe. “We recognize that we must act with urgency and engage with key stakeholders as we develop our plans. We cannot do this work overnight or alone if we truly want to create the lasting change that our students, families, and staff deserve.”
Last summer’s agreement between the state and city required wide-ranging changes to improve the district’s academics and operations after a state review found BPS had failed to sufficiently address intractable problems. Riley conceded Tuesday the district has made progress: He noted BPS completed a required strategic plan for English language learners, created an office of emergency management, and hired more bus monitors and drivers.
Riley said he wanted to give Skipper time to settle into her new role, but underscored BPS had not hit its targets. He added that the state education department was “blindsided” by Skipper and Mayor Michelle Wu’s announcement earlier this month to overhaul BPS’s high school system, a plan he deemed “half-baked at best.”
The city’s proposal would split up the O’Bryant School of Math and Science and Madison Park Technical Vocational High School: Madison Park would take over the entire Roxbury campus and be extensively renovated, enabling enrollment to double to 2,200students. The O’Bryant, a high-performing exam school, would move to a rebuilt facility at the now-shuttered West Roxbury Education Complex on the VFW Parkway, allowing it to expand by 400 students to 2,000.
“Worse, it seems that neither DESE nor relevant stakeholders, and that includes parents, teachers, and even some school committee members, were given any heads up about it before it was announced,” Riley continued. “And while the overall plan may have merit, it’s hard to support it without understanding the financials.”
Riley said the cost of renovating Madison Park could reach $1 billion, and the district would need another $300 to $400 million to refurbish the West Roxbury building, which, he added, the state education board had been told a few years ago was structurally unsound and needed to close.
The public response to the city’s plan for moving the O’Bryant — Boston’s most diverse exam school — has been mixed, with some excitement about the prospect of a large new campus, but many teachers, city leaders, and community members fearful of the repercussions of relocating the school to a predominantly white neighborhood, which, as Riley noted, is not easily accessible by public transportation.
“How are kids going to get bused there?” he asked. Wu has said the city will work with the state to devise a transportation plan for the O’Bryant students that is expected to include dedicated shuttles.
Riley also questioned which schools would be closed to accommodate the anticipated new size of Madison Park and the timeline for these proposed changes.
The city has no overall cost estimate for the proposal. Wu has designated $18 million in the city’s 2024 capital budget for design and demolition work at the West Roxbury complex and another $45 million to start designing the Madison Park campus, with the goal of starting construction in 2025.
Staff writer Christopher Huffaker contributed to this report.