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Boston city and school officials push back on state's 'unrealistic timelines' for reforms

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius addresses the news media about her decision to step down at the end of the school year during a press conference at Brighton High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius addresses the news media about her decision to step down at the end of the school year during a press conference at Brighton High School. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As the school year draws to a close, negotiations over state-supervised reform in the Boston Public Schools have soured.

In a letter dated June 21, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu and top school officials say they share state education officials' "urgency" about responding to various pressing concerns about the district's safety protocols, facilities and educational services.

But they raise concerns of their own: namely, that the state's preferred approach — rapid change, implemented with limited support and strict oversight — could backfire.

The letter is the latest salvo in a flurry of proposals and counterproposals exchanged between the city and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, prompted by DESE's sharply critical May report on the Boston Public Schools.

When it comes to improving the accuracy of district data, for instance, Wu notes the city and school system have agreed to hire an independent data auditor approved by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary & Secondary Education.

"We believe this meets and exceeds DESE’s stated goal of third-party access and stakeholder confidence without imposing a version of top-down control that would constitute a form of receivership," the letter states.

The state has faulted Boston for inaccurate or misleading data about the timeliness of its school buses and its graduation rates.

Wu, outgoing superintendent Brenda Cassellius and school committee chairwoman Jeri Robinson voiced these and other concerns to Jeff Riley, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education, in a terse two-page letter sent Tuesday.

Beyond the data reviewcity leaders identified other potential risks in Riley's proposals: what they call "unrealistic deadlines" for sweeping changes and the proposed structure of the oversight agreement.

Their letter notes that, under Riley's terms, the state's largest district — which serves over 46,000 students across 113 schools — would have just seven weeks to institute major changes, such as: identify and hire a specialized team to reform special education services and draft a districtwide manual on special education; develop "a system to ensure that all English learners... receive all appropriate instruction" in age-appropriate content; and finalize its strategic plan in multilingual learning.

Wu, Cassellius and Robinson argue that such "accelerated timelines" would require the district "to execute rushed and flawed processes that would also limit the opportunity for community and family engagement." In general, the city has proposed deadlines that are weeks or months later.

Boston Public Schools is just days away from selecting Cassellius's successor for superintendent, with public interviews of the two finalists set to occur Thursday and Friday.

Letter charges 'limited commitments' from state 

The city officials' letter says Riley's latest proposal places the responsibility for change squarely on Boston officials, and offers only "limited commitments" in the form of state support.

DESE officials did not respond to request for comment on Wednesday.

Riley's latest proposal from earlier this month promised some support, including $10 million in targeted funding to be spent over three years along with some requested training.

As the two sides work toward an agreement, their differing approaches — which surfaced earlier this month — have hardened into what Riley called "sticking points" in a June 17 letter to Wu, obtained via a public records request.

With the city tasked with overhauls of the district's long-unreliable transportation system, aging facilities and core services for thousands of its most vulnerable students, Wu's office has repeatedly sought to draft an agreement that strikes a partnership between city and state officials.

The idea of a partnership has defenders outside City Hall. Paul Reville — the state's former education secretary and the former chair of its governing education board — called for "a strong state partnership" in a Boston Globe editorial in mid-May, saying "there is no magical fix" to BPS's problems and that Wu's team has "momentum."

The district's ongoing negotiations with Riley are now themselves on a tight deadline.

At the May DESE meeting, Riley said he hoped to have "assurances from the mayor" that some of the district's basic functions could be fixed before a new superintendent was appointed. The district plans to name its new leader in less than a week, on June 29.

Related:

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

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