Metro

State to take over Holyoke schools

Mitchell Chester said some Holyoke schools rate in the bottom 10 percent statewide.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Mitchell Chester said some Holyoke schools rate in the bottom 10 percent statewide.

FITCHBURG — The Holyoke Public Schools, which have struggled with low performance for more than a decade, became on Tuesday the second district in the state to enter receivership following a vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The state’s education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, recommended the action last month after previous attempts to improve the public schools in the Western Massachusetts city failed. The board voted in favor of state receivership 8 to 3, despite strong opposition from Holyoke residents at a public meeting there on Monday.

According to Chester, the highest-performing school in Holyoke is in the 21st percentile among its peers, while others rate in the bottom 10 percent statewide.

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Holyoke residents should see the receivership not as a black eye for its reputation but as “an opportunity for the city,” Chester said in a news conference after the meeting at Fitchburg State University.

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He also sought to address concerns that many teachers would lose their jobs.

“There will be no mass firings,” he said. “There is a lot of talent in Holyoke, a lot of great teachers, strong administrators — we need them to be part of the turnaround.”

Chester said he will act within two months to appoint a receiver, who will have the authority of a superintendent and a school committee. Chester will fill the role himself until he selects a receiver.

The receiver will be advised by a group of community stakeholders chosen by local officials, Chester said, which will include parents, community members, the teachers union president, and the mayor and school committee chair or their representatives.

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The vote disappointed advocates for teachers and supporters of Holyoke’s superintendent, Sergio Paez, who has been in the job less than two years. Paez attended Tuesday’s meeting but declined to be interviewed after the vote.

“I don’t have any comment right now,” he said.

Other Holyoke officials were present but were not invited to speak because the board heard from families and officials at Monday’s meeting in Holyoke, which drew hundreds.

Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse, had also opposed receivership but after the vote he said residents “need to see this as an opportunity to turn the district around.”

Morse said he would be personally involved in the transition as much as possible.

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“I think the worst possible thing that can happen is for our students and our teachers to abandon our effort,” he said. “I think we need our teachers — now more than ever — our parents, our community members, the business community to come together and send a message that we stand ready and prepared to turn our district around.”

Devin Sheehan, vice chairman of the Holyoke School Committee, said its members had voted unanimously against receivership. He said it is important now that the schools maintain existing innovations put in place by Paez and earlier superintendents.

“Dr. Paez brought in some great new initiatives, dual-language programs. We increased our graduation rate and decreased our dropout rate,” Sheehan said.

“But we need to take a look at where we have deficiencies,” he continued, “and I’ll be looking toward the commissioner and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to . . . help us correct those, because they obviously have a different take on how to get the job done.”

When the board voted on Tuesday, Ed Doherty, Mary Ann Stewart, and Donald Willyard opposed receivership.

Doherty, a former president of the Boston Teachers Union and current official at the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, said he opposes receivership because it strips teachers of collective bargaining rights.

Stewart and Willyard, the only board members who said they had visited Holyoke schools, said they observed better use of technology and better engagement of students and teachers than Chester had described in a report to the board.

They said that the schools were on an upswing under Paez’s guidance and that he should be given more time.

In Lawrence, the only previous district to be put into receivership by the board, schools have undergone a dramatic turnaround.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox