Wu claims victory in school negotiations

Preserves local control, says she’s OK with state data oversight

BOSTON MAYOR Michelle Wu suggested on Tuesday that the agreement between the city and state over management of the Boston Public Schools was a victory of sorts for her.

The agreement, negotiated over the course of a month and signed on Monday, sets out targets and timelines for actions by the city in reforming the school system but averts both a state takeover of the district and an “underperforming” designation that would have given the state far more control over Boston’s schools.

Local control almost vanished. State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley threw up his hands on Friday, saying he was going to designate the city’s schools as underperforming because he was unable to find common ground with Wu on a handful of key issues.

During a Zoom meeting on Sunday night, however, Riley and Wu struck a deal that Wu on Tuesday characterized as pretty much what she wanted all along.

“I am grateful for the many, many conversations that ultimately landed where we hoped we would be – and that I know this group shared – that local communities know best the issues facing our schools and our students and their families,’ Wu told the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education at a meeting in Malden. “And local communities are best positioned to deliver on that change with the partnership and strong support of every level of government.”

One key area of disagreement between Wu and Riley was data collection. Riley, in a memo he wrote on Friday, said the Boston Public Schools had historically engaged in a pattern of inaccurate or misleading data reporting on school bus performance, bathroom renovations, and graduation and dropout rates. Riley said the city and the school system had agreed to hire their own data auditor, but he said that was not sufficient given past inaccuracies.

“Ultimately, I decided I could not sign onto to any improvement plan that did not contain an independent auditor reporting to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education [DESE], where DESE determines the scope of the work, to verify the accuracy of BPS data,” Riley wrote.

The deal signed on Monday appears to give Riley everything he wanted on data collection – an independent auditor hired by DESE and the creation of a data working group headed by a DESE appointee to follow up on the reporting issues.

Wu portrayed the outcome on the data reporting issue not as a concession but as something the city wanted all along.

“We finally arrived at a recognition that the Boston Public Schools and our city were never pushing back on data oversight or partnership from the state. In fact, that provision for an independent data auditor had been in many, many drafts from nearly the beginning of the discussions in this agreement,” Wu said. “It was in fact that we refused to enter into anything less than a partnership because that’s what our kids deserve. And that required clear time frame and clear scope. I’m very grateful that the commissioner met us on those two points in the last few hours. And I want to be clear that our standards are higher than the collection of commitments outlined in this agreement.”

Riley, who tested positive for COVID and participated in the meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education remotely, said little about the agreement other than that he was satisfied with it. He said the city wanted local control of the schools and the state will do what it can to support the three-year improvement plan with technical assistance and $10 million over three years.

“At the end of the day, it’s the mayor we need to thank,” he said. “She took personal responsibility for the functioning of the school system and its improvement.”

The negotiated agreement has goals and timelines in the areas of student safety, transportation, special education, facility improvements, and English learners.

Geri Robinson, the chair of the Boston School Committee, thanked state officials for pressing the school district to do better. “Thanks for holding us accountable,” she said.

Most of the members of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education seemed content with the outcome of the negotiations between Wu and Riley. One exception was Michael Moriarty of Holyoke, a board member who favored a state takeover of the Boston Public Schools.

Moriarty said he was skeptical the Boston Public Schools will embrace change. “They have successfully preserved as much control as possible,” he said.

He urged Riley to push for receivership at the first sign of intransigence by the school district, but acknowledged the whole concept of state takeover of local school districts is a murky process with no benchmarks for success.

“A lot rests on the capacity of the next superintendent,” Moriarty said of Boston.

The Boston School Committee is expected to vote on a new superintendent Wednesday.