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Facing a potential state takeover, Boston promises 'urgent' improvements in its schools07:12
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Mayor Michelle Wu speaks to the news media during a press conference at Brighton High School on March 22, 2022, where Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius (left) announced she would resign at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Mayor Michelle Wu speaks to the news media during a press conference at Brighton High School on March 22, 2022, where Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius (left) announced she would resign at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As she seeks to fend off a state takeover of Boston Public Schools, Mayor Michelle Wu is proposing a slate of speedy reforms.

Under the terms of a draft agreement obtained late Thursday, Massachusetts' largest school district would have to tackle several problems raised by a recent state review, including redesigning programming for students with disabilities and English learners, curbing violence in the schools, and ensuring that its troubled fleet of school buses start arriving on time (or close to it).

In a statement after the draft memorandum began to circulate Thursday night, BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius — who is set to step down in June — said her team is confident in the plan, and that it "acknowledges the urgency of this work and the shared interest" between the district, city and state.

As she addressed the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Tuesday, Wu said her team is working quickly "to rebuild trust with our communities, and step into our fullest potential as a historic birthplace of public education."

Wu argued that a state takeover would be "counterproductive" with some of that work already underway, including a sizable investment in school facilities and the search for Cassellius's replacement. If enacted, she said, Boston would move to plead its case at a public hearing.

The city hopes to avoid that discussion altogether with the plan, set for official release Friday, complete with deadlines, some already looming.

Under its terms, the district would have until mid-August to audit school safety protocols, review the condition of dozens of badly-maintained school bathrooms and rewrite its guidance on special education, seeking to place more students with disabilities in the "least restrictive" learning environments they are entitled to under federal law.

In late summer, the district would try to guarantee school bus routes are covered, enact a strategic plan for English learners and establish an internal system for reviewing its data, which the state had faulted as unreliable.

The plan was drafted to meet expectations set by state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, himself the former principal of Boston's Clarence Edwards Middle School, which closed last June after years of neglect and poor performance on tests.

But it remains to be seen whether Wu's proposal will satisfy the commissioner. Even as he touted progress at Tuesday's meeting, Riley said he "need[s] assurances now" that students in Boston will be able to count on safety, adequate instruction, clean data and clean restrooms.

The meeting showcased a stark divide on the possibility of receivership in Boston.

A spillover crowd of parents, educators and city officials lambasted the idea as impractical, undemocratic and racist. (Some research suggests that state takeovers are more common in cities and districts led by people of color and serving majority Black and Latino students.)

Margaret McKenna, the board's former chair, said she came to see an appointed receiver as a kind of "dictator," and noted that the specter of COVID hung over almost all of Boston's recent education policymaking: "To say that this was a fair analysis of a normal time, it certainly wasn't."

But at least one board member, Matt Hills, said he'd "certainly" support receivership in Boston, describing the district's academics, outside of its three exam schools, as "really, really poor." Some in the crowd disputed that, saying by many metrics, Boston performs as well or better than the three districts already under state supervision.

Hills also warned Riley against accepting the city's then-unpublished plan, saying the problems run deep and "you're leaving yourself open to not get the kind of deal you think you're going to get."

In response, Riley said, given "common courtesy and good sense," Wu should have a chance to solve problems not of her own making. But he left the door open for multiple courses of action this summer: "If I believe that there's a path forward that's in the best interest of the children of Boston, I'm gonna do that."

The audio attached to this post is a Morning Edition conversation with Mayor Michelle Wu.

This segment aired on May 27, 2022.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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