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Jeff Riley, Lawrence official, gets nod for state education commissioner

MALDEN — Jeffrey Riley, the state-appointed superintendent and receiver of Lawrence schools, is poised to become Massachusetts’ next education commissioner after receiving an endorsement Monday from the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The board’s 8-3 vote followed 1½ hours of deliberations during which several members repeatedly lauded Riley’s success in boosting student achievement in the former mill city and his ability to work collaboratively with a diverse group of stakeholders, including the city’s teachers union and charter schools.

Riley prevailed over two other finalists, both women, for the post: Angelica Infante-Green, deputy commissioner of the Office of Instructional Support at the New York State Education Department, and Penny Schwinn, chief deputy commissioner of academics at the Texas Education Agency.


Massachusetts has never had a female commissioner of elementary and secondary education, even though the education field is overwhelming comprised of women — a fact that prompted several advocacy organizations to lobby state leaders to end what they deemed an embarrassing trend.

But Paul Sagan, chairman of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said at the start of the Monday meeting that the board was not called upon to select a commissioner based on a single attribute and must assess the candidates’ full records. Sagan later revealed that Riley was his pick.

“At the end of the day, and I understand the symbolism that could be evoked today but . . . it’s not how we are judged in the next hours, days, and weeks; it’s what will happen in the next few years,” Sagan said, calling the decision excruciating. “I think Jeff Riley gives us the best shot.”

Riley, who has led Lawrence’s schools for six years, said he was honored to be chosen. He will replace Acting Commissioner Jeffrey Wulfson, who stepped in after Mitchell Chester died in June of cancer. Riley’s start date has not been hammered out yet.


“Massachusetts is a national leader in education, and I look forward to narrowing achievement gaps within the state and ensuring that all of our students have the support and opportunities they need to be successful,” Riley said in a statement.

Speculation had been swirling for months about whether Riley would get the post. He raised eyebrows in November when he announced he would be leaving Lawrence in June and later revealed he was applying for the commissioner’s job. Riley also had been publicly praised through the years by Governor Charlie Baker, who noted in his State of the Commonwealth address two years ago that Riley “isn’t a big talker — he’s a doer.”

Some organizations expressed disappointment the selection didn’t go to Infante-Green, who in recent days had picked up a number of endorsements from Latino and education organizations. The groups were impressed with Infante-Green’s record of working with bilingual students and those with special needs.

“I really view it as a missed opportunity,” said Keri Rodrigues who leads Massachusetts Parents United, which endorsed Infante-Green. “It’s not enough to be number one in the nation unless we are number one with all kids.”

Three state board members — Margaret McKenna, Amanda Fernandez, and Mary Ann Stewart — cast their votes for Infante-Green, praising her record of working with bilingual and special-needs students.

“We need someone who can and has walked in the shoes of the very children we need to invest more in,” Fernandez said. “We need someone who can build bridges but disrupt when necessary. Someone who can inspire a sense of urgency in those in position of power and decision-making while at the same time inspire hope and build trust from children and communities we operate and serve.”


But the vote did not fall entirely on gender lines. Two other female members, Katherine Craven and Hannah Trimarchi, voted for Riley.

James Peyser, the state’s education secretary, has final say on the selection, an anticlimatic move because Peyser is also a voting member of the board and cast one of the votes for Riley.

“He is an innovative thinker,” Peyser said before the vote. “What has happened in Lawrence is not simply executing some playbook that was given to him. He very much created that playbook.”

After the meeting, Peyser said in an interview that he would make the selection official with a letter to the board by the end of the week. The board will then negotiate a contract with Riley.

Many of Riley’s supporters cheered his selection. Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera praised Riley as open-minded.

“In a world where education reform is seen as high drama and high stakes, populated with soldiers from philosophical biases, Jeff finds the best tool for the problem that will help the most students and executes it, reviews it, and changes strategy when needed,” Rivera said in a statement. “He is not beholden to one political leaning.”


Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence teachers union, said Riley is a good listener and collaborator.

“At the end of the day Jeff and I had same vision for kids: What’s good for them is good for adults,” he said.

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.