The town of Southbridge could become the third community in Massachusetts to see its schools taken over by the state, following a recommendation by the commissioner of elementary and secondary education on Friday.
Mitchell D. Chester called on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to declare public schools in the Central Massachusetts town “chronically underperforming,” allowing him to appoint a receiver to overhaul the struggling school system.
“Despite significant effort over the past dozen years by educators and students in the district, as well as efforts by the Commonwealth to support educational improvement, low academic performance, low graduation rates, and unstable leadership continue to characterize the Southbridge Public Schools,” Chester said Friday in a letter to the board.
A recent state review of Southbridge schools found that they had one of the state’s lowest percentages of students scoring proficient or advanced on last year’s MCAS exam. In addition, more than one-third of secondary school students in Southbridge failed at least one course last year.
The review also found that the district had seen seven superintendents and seven high school principals come and go since 2011.
The interim superintendent in Southbridge, Timothy Connors, said the biggest issue he sees in the district was a lack of steady leadership. Connors took the job only two months ago, upon the previous superintendent's departure, he said by phone Friday afternoon.
Connors came out of retirement to lead Southbridge schools through the end of this school year, following a five-decade career in education and 35 years as a superintendent for districts in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and Minnesota, he said.
“I knew that this is a community that cares about its children, and I thought together that we could help to make a difference over the short term, and I think we’re doing that,” he said.
In his brief time in the district, Connors has visited classrooms every day and has seen a high level of dedication, he said.
“We have a lot of hardworking school administrators, teachers, families, and kids — we have some great young people out here,” he said. “And we’re trying to get our schools heading in the right direction. We think that the people who are here could continue to do that.”
The president of the Southbridge Education Association, the local teachers’ union, did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.
Lawrence and Holyoke have previously been subjected to a state takeover under the 2010 education law that allows the state to seize control of entire school districts.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will hold a public meeting in Southbridge on Jan. 25 to hear from local residents and officials. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is set to discuss a potential takeover at its Jan. 26 meeting but will probably not vote until Feb. 23, Chester said in his letter.