For Boston schools, a reckoning with no simple answers

THINK OF DANIELLE MILLER and Mary Tamer as the rock and hard place between which state and city leaders sit as they try to figure out a plan for the Boston Public Schools.

Miller, the parent of a special needs student at the Clap Elementary School in Dorchester, told members of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education yesterday that the district faces widespread problems. She sounded open to any approach that would advance the interests of students. But Miller said she is hard-pressed to see, based on the track record of state takeovers to date, how putting the district in receivership would help. 

“If the state had the capacity to significantly resolve or ameliorate the issues that parents, the [Boston Teachers Union], the state, and the district itself has identified over the years, that would, in my mind, largely outweigh the loss of community control that receivership entails,” she told the board. “But there simply isn’t any evidence the state has that capacity.” 

Tamer, a Boston parent and graduate of the city’s schools who formerly sat on the school committee, offered the board a scathing indictment of decades of failed promises and vows by district leaders to drive change on their own. She ticked off the laundry list of problems in the system, from the dysfunction a new state report said pervades the district’s central office, with no plan to fix it, to a chaotic transportation system, and bullying and sexual abuse at a school that continued “unabated” for nearly a decade without adults at the school or central office intervening. 

“If past is prologue, we’re likely facing years of mediocrity and failure,” Tamer, now state director of Democrats for Education Reform, said about leaving the schools entirely in local hands.  

After Monday’s release of the withering state review of the district, the second harsh state assessment of Boston’s schools issued in two years, the question is, what is to be done? 

State receivership looms as the most radical option, but it always seemed unlikely that Education Commissioner Jeff Riley would advance that idea as his first move in what’s emerged as a high-stakes game of chicken with Mayor Michelle Wu. State takeover of the largest Massachusetts school district would be an enormous logistical challenge, not to mention politically explosive. 

Riley made it clear on Tuesday that he’d much prefer to work out an agreement with Wu on a plan for the city’s schools that doesn’t involve full receivership. But what the contours of such a pact would look like remain unclear. 

While such a plan might be a relief to those like Danielle Miller who are dubious of the ability of receivership to lead to meaningful change, Mary Tamer sounded skeptical of the ability to generate real improvements without state intervention. 

At the center of the drama is Michelle Wu, who took office as Boston mayor just six months ago and inherited the school problems that have festered and grown for decades. 

“Voters elected Wu to fix the schools, and she deserves a chance to do it,” reads the headline over the online version of Globe columnist Adrian Walker’s piece Wednesday morning. 

But school improvement was not really the overriding issue that propelled Wu’s resounding victory, and it’s not clear that voters will hold her accountable on public school issues.

Then-Mayor Tom Menino, only three years into his record-setting 20-year run, famously implored voters to “judge me harshly” if schools don’t improve. He presided over a period that saw some gains in the schools, not coincidental with avoiding the recent revolving door of superintendents and retaining Tom Payzant as superintendent for 11 years. But Menino’s  reelection wins never turned on school improvement. 

In last year’s mayoral election final, Wu, a Boston school parent, and Annissa Essaibi George, a parent and former BPS teacher, both issued lengthy education plans. But neither spelled out measurable goals for the troubled district. 

“We want the next mayor to set really clear outcomes and targets for gains for kids, but neither of the plans identify clear outcomes or targets for children, particularly for those who have been historically underserved,” Will Austin, CEO of the nonprofit Boston Schools Fund, said at the time. 

“I ran for mayor to make sure that Boston stops kicking the can down the line,” Wu said at Tuesday’s state board of education meeting. Defining what that means is now something state education leaders will have a big say in. 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Cooperation preferred: State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said he would prefer to work with the city of Boston to improve its schools rather than ordering a state takeover, but he made no promises one day after the release of a state report that described the school system as dysfunctional. The key problem areas, according to the report, are student safety, special education, English learners, transportation, data transparency, and facilities.

– Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who met with Riley and Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday, said she would present an improvement plan to the state in the next few days that would begin a negotiation process over next steps. Riley told the state board of education that he hoped to have an agreement in place with the city in a week.

– Testimony at the board’s meeting on Tuesday overwhelmingly opposed a state takeover of the city’s schools, but there were a handful of voices expressing skepticism that leaving the schools in the hands of city officials would lead to any meaningful change. “This isn’t an issue of whether someone’s committed,” said state board member Matt Hills of Wu’s vow to lead district change. “The previous mayors were all committed. There are huge structural issues, both internally and externally, that keep changes from being made.” Read more.

OPINION

Another civil war? Edward M. Murphy, in a review of the book How Civil Wars Start, suggests the US might be entering dangerous territory. Read more.

Step it up: Robert H. Simonds, a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School, says Boston’s corporate sector needs to ratchet up its funding of the arts, particularly smaller arts organizations. Read more.

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

BEACON HILL

The unionization push by Senate staff remains in limbo. (Salem News)

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced a “warm-weather plan” for dealing with problems in the troubled Mass. and Cass area of the city, a gathering spot for homeless people dealing with addiction and mental illness. (Boston Herald

Wu, who last week said she had only read a redacted version of the internal affairs file on former Boston police officer and union president Patrick Rose, now says she has read the full report. (Boston Globe

Merchants in Dorchester, particularly in the Fields Corner section, are struggling to deal with graffiti. City Councilor Frank Baker said the graffiti is not art and he worries that the graffiti is an indicator of a larger problem. “The graffiti is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. (Dorchester Reporter)

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

Nineteen children and two teachers were gunned down at a Texas elementary school, the latest in a seemingly never-ending string of mass shootings in the country. (Washington Post

Members of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation are banned from entering Russia. (Gloucester Daily Times)

BUSINESS/ECONOMY

A church in Provincetown is renting out its empty rectory to two businesses who intend to house their workers there. (Cape Cod Times)

Los Angeles attorney Lisa Bloom withdraws her claim of inappropriate conduct by former casino mogul Steve Wynn and paid him an undisclosed financial settlement. (Associated Press)

ENERGY/ENVIRONMENT

Sixteen years after ordering Rockland to fix its sewer problems, the US Environmental Protection Agency says the town is still generating too much wastewater and could face fines. (Patriot Ledger)

The Supreme Judicial Court rejects a bid by ExxonMobil to dismiss a lawsuit brought by Attorney General Maura Healey that accuses the oil giant of misleading the public about climate change. (Associated Press)

CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS

Suffolk DA Kevin Hayden announced a new restorative justice program aimed at bringing victims, offenders, and community members together to handle cases outside traditional criminal court proceedings. (Boston Globe

The son of the head of the State Police will face five charges related to carrying unsecured guns in his car. (Boston Globe

MEDIA

Anne Galloway is stepping down as executive editor of VTDigger, Vermont’s largest nonprofit news organization, but staying on in the position of editor at large. (Media Nation)

PASSINGS

Eric Lindquist, the sports announcer for Worcester Sharks and Railers games, dies at 43. (Telegram & Gazette)