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Days before schools open, Brockton faces leadership disruption and deficit turmoil

Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan during a press briefing about the schools deficit Thursday night (Screengrab from WCVB Boston)
Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan during a press briefing about the schools deficit Thursday night (Screengrab from WCVB Boston)

After an hours-long special school committee meeting Thursday evening, Brockton city officials revealed that a $14 million hole exists in the budget of their public schools for the 2023 fiscal year.

That surprise deficit — along with the sudden departure of Superintendent Michael Thomas on “extended medical leave” — was announced by Brockton Mayor Robert Sullivan Thursday night.

“As mayor and a BPS alum and a parent of a student in the BPS system, I’m extremely dismayed … by the situation,” Sullivan told reporters outside Brockton High. He pledged to “rectify the situation, appoint new leadership and move forward” in delivering quality public education. He declined to take questions.

The Brockton school committee and Sullivan, who serves as its chair, held a four-hour emergency meeting Thursday night, held entirely in executive session, making it closed to the public.

Thomas, a 26-year veteran of the district and its superintendent since 2019, did not attend the meeting, Sullivan confirmed. Thomas was scheduled to step in as interim principal of Brockton High this fall, according to local media reports, to offer a hand in addition to his regular duties.

Updates posted to the school district's website contain little additional information about the shortfall or Thomas's departure.

"I understand that many of you have questions right now that we cannot answer,” Sullivan wrote in a short update late Thursday, after warning against circulating "misinformation.”

A second special emergency school committee meeting was held Friday afternoon at Brockton High. The meeting lasted just 15 minutes before going into executive session and the time was spent mostly on two unanimous votes.

In the first, the committee appointed James Cobbs as acting superintendent. Cobbs has worked in the district for over a decade and served as deputy superintendent of operations since June 2022.

The committee also approved an independent investigation into the cause of the deficit. Sullivan said he wants the investigation to be carried out by a firm based outside the city, but the committee stipulated that two of its members should participate.

“I wanna do a deep dive,” Sullivan said in brief remarks before the vote. “We’re taking this extremely [seriously], and we look forward to the findings, whatever they render.”

There was no opportunity for public comment at the meeting and residents' first chance to ask questions about the latest developments will be during a regular meeting next Wednesday, the day city schools open. Teachers report to school on Tuesday.

Reached for an interview by 7 News WHDH on Friday, Thomas took responsibility for “overspending” on staff, safety measures and transportation as superintendent.

But he stopped short of apologizing for the resulting deficit. “There was nothing stolen, there’s nothing wrong. Everything was spent towards kids,” said Thomas, who has worked in the district since 1993.

Thomas also acknowledged his own unspecified “medical issues” in the interview, but declined to discuss whether he might return to district leadership.

This latest large deficit — and Thomas’ hasty departure — only add to recent turmoil in the Brockton Public Schools, Massachusetts’ fifth-largest school district and home to the state’s largest school, Brockton High, which enrolled nearly 3,700 students last year.

The district was already staring down an $18 million deficit for the current 2024 fiscal year, for which it reportedly laid off at least 130 educators to address this spring.

The district enrolled roughly 14,900 students total in the last academic year, and had an approximately $221 million budget in the 2023 fiscal year. Its 2024 budget totals $229 million.

The double deficit comes at a moment when the Brockton Public Schools are receiving unprecedented levels of outside support.

Five years ago, Brockton was an epicenter of advocacy for the Student Opportunity Act, a landmark reworking of state aid to school districts. In 2018, then-Superintendent Kathleen Smith told WBUR that her diverse district was “hanging by a thread” due to lagging state investments.

That changed once the Student Opportunity Act passed in 2019, which targets additional state aid especially at districts like Brockton, where nearly three-quarters of students come from low-income households.

In the 2024 fiscal year, Brockton schools will receive an estimated $241 million in so-called “Chapter 70” support from the state — 37% more than they received in 2019, despite a nearly 9% decline in enrollment over the same period. (The state’s Chapter 70 aid is calculated based in part on the raw number of students in a district.)

The district also received a projected $53.4 million in ESSER funds from the federal government during fiscal years 2021 to 2024. Mayor Sullivan and Superintendent Thomas wrote in May that those funds had been used to buy laptops for all students, improve HVAC systems and fund “accelerated learning programs.”

This article was originally published on September 01, 2023.

Max Larkin Reporter, Education
Max Larkin is an education reporter.



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