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Education Chief Recommends State Takeover Of Holyoke Schools

The state should take over the Holyoke Public Schools, Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester recommended Tuesday, saying "persistent and pervasive" problems in the school district make receivership necessary.

The commissioner's suggestion at a state Board of Education meeting sparked angry outbursts from parents and teachers in the audience. The board must vote on the recommendation after first holding public hearings in Holyoke, with a final decision expected later this spring.

Chester, who made the recommendation verbally during remarks to the board, said he does not blame Holyoke teachers or the new school superintendent for the problems. The state has offered assistance to improve student performance for more than a decade, according to Chester.

"Despite those efforts we have seen virtually no improvement in the quality of the education the students are getting in Holyoke," he said.

Holyoke schools have some of the lowest achievement results in the state, according to state education officials. Only one out of every three students read at grade level, and one out of four students is on grade level in math. One out of every five students has received an out-of-school suspension, and graduation rates are low.

"I don't bring a recommendation on receivership to you lightly. I take very seriously local control," Chester told the board.

Chester, who began serving as commissioner of education in May 2008, has recommended receivership twice - for Lawrence and Holyoke schools, he said. State education officials often point to a dramatic turnaround in Lawrence schools after undergoing receivership.

Without state intervention, Holyoke students will continue to struggle with low academic achievement, Chester said.

"This is not about blaming teachers," Chester said, adding the goal of receivership is to improve the quality of education in Holyoke.

"I have a tremendous sense of urgency, and I have every conviction that we can do better for the children of Holyoke," he said.

Under receivership, the entity put in charge would have authority to hire or fire staff, and void union contracts, in an effort to turn the schools around. The Holyoke system has more than 5,500 students attending 11 schools and, at $16,220 per student spending, higher per pupil expenditures compared to the $12,487 median of districts of similar size.

If the board votes in favor of state receivership, then a turnaround plan for the schools will be developed.

Education Secretary James Peyser, appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, told the News Service he is keeping an open mind as the process moves along.

No final decision was made Tuesday. The board will hold a public hearing in Holyoke, and Chester may adjust his recommendation based on input from the hearing, according to Peyser.

"At this point, I definitely want to keep an open mind about the final decision, but there's no question that the commissioner has taken not only the evidence from the evaluation, but also the long history of performance in Holyoke to make this recommendation, which I think is quite reasonable. I think we need again to evaluate it in detail to know what the right step forward is," Peyser said after the meeting.

"This is one of the lowest performing districts in the Commonwealth, has been for decades, and the children and families there deserve better than they're getting," Peyser added.

Peyser said he did not know how much it will cost the state if Holyoke schools are put into receivership because typically funding is reallocated from existing local and state resources.

"That's not to say it is going to be free, but it is not necessarily going to be a budget-buster either," Peyser said.

Jean Sherlock, who represents Holyoke teachers on the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the statewide teachers' union, said placing the schools in receivership is "shortsighted." She argued the problems stem from a lack of state funding.

"I think that if the state would redistribute wealth differently, and Holyoke had the same kind of resources as Andover or Lexington that this would not be an issue," Sherlock told the News Service.

"If we had a more equitable funding mechanism we wouldn't be having this conversation. They haven't mentioned that at all. They want to put the blame on teachers or the community when really it is a funding issue," she added.

One woman in the audience repeatedly interrupted the board discussion, and yelled "the information being relayed is false."

Board Chairman Paul Sagan, who was appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker on March 6, asked the woman to stop interrupting the meeting, or he would ask her to leave.

Sagan said the board has a "very, very heavy decision" to make.

"The results in Holyoke are not acceptable," he said.

The board will look at whether the current path will improve school achievement, Sagan said.

Holyoke Schools Superintendent Sergio Paez, who took over the job 18 months ago, said he agrees with the assessment of the schools, but says he has started to turn things around. He does not support a state takeover.

Paez told the News Service last month that a combination of things are holding student achievement down, pointing to low expectations, a transient population, poverty, and the high percentage of students who speak English as a second language.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni told the board receivership is the wrong answer.

"What I read tells me that, even by the narrow standards defined by the department, the district is moving in the right direction," Madeloni said. "Programs are in place and improvements are beginning to take root. Based upon this report, state takeover of the district is not warranted."

State education officials in January accelerated the timeline of a review of the Holyoke school district.

Board member David Roach said after reading the review team's report there appears to be a "somewhat antagonistic" relationship between the local teacher's union and the school administration. Roach said it seems like the teachers' union and school officials are not working together.

Rob Curtin, director of district accountability for DESE who briefed the board Tuesday on the review, said they did find problems between the administration and the Holyoke Teachers Association.

"There is no future in that. If that is the condition as it exists...it really does leave us with very few options in the direction we are going to have to go," Roach said. "Clearly of all the things that appear in this report, I would identify that as the most troubling."

Madeloni said the Holyoke Teachers Association has worked closely with the community during the past year to determine the best strategies to move the schools forward.

"The HTA and MTA are continuing to hold member and community forums in which we ask - what are the schools the children of Holyoke deserve and what do we need in order to achieve that vision?" Madeloni said.

The teachers unions plan to release recommendations in April.

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