February 2024 meeting of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met for their regular February meeting on February 27, 2024 at 9 am at their new offices in Everett. The agenda of the meeting can be found here; the video of the meeting is here. Members Mohamed and Rouhanifard participated in the meeting remotely; Member Stewart was not present.

The Board opened with public comment.
Keri Rodrigues of the National Parents Union spoke of Brockton High School, finances, violence, staffing, and lacks of leadership, calling for the Board to “get over its crippling fear of local control” and step in, saying, “we are not just props; we are future plaintiffs.”

Several speakers addressed the panel brought in by Chair Katherine Craven last month on antisemitism.
Sana Fadel of Newton said that students who came to school after the October 7 attack and ensuing military action in Gaza with grief and fear, needing a place to process and discuss, instead “found that one narrative was accepted.” She said that last month, the Board gave platform to those who advocated for an expanded definition of antisemitism beyond hatred and discrimination against Jews to those who criticize Israel. “They advocated for what amounts to censorship and book banning in our public schools,…They argued that the mere mention of Palestinian human rights is a so-called attack on Israeli sovereignty.” She noted that this included Jews and Israeli individuals and institutions who do not align with their perspective, asking “Are you going to agree and decide that as a governing state body it will be your job to decide which kind of Jew is the good kind of Jew and which is the bad Jew based on their recommendations?”
Farisa Khan of Brookline said that she thought back to herself as a newly arrived immigrant from Pakistan of over twenty years ago, saying it pained her to use her voice to remind the Board not “overlook or disregard me” or those who look like her. She said she was surprised at the Board’s last meeting to hear only one side’s perspective on how October 7 has impacted students in the U.S., noting that the panel involved a number of those who have spoken repeatedly at Brookline School Committee meetings in the past several months, and did not include an opportunity for other perspectives, including from Jewish friends and neighbors, and Palestinian Massachusetts residents. She called it “not only an effort to control the speech [but]…an effort to control the speech in a discriminatory way.”
Nora Lester Murad, an author and educator who lives in Newton, said that she spoke as a Jew and a member of a Palestinian family by marriage. She said that, given “the explosion of bullying, misinformation, and closemindedness” in Massachusetts,  action by DESE and BESE was “critical” but “only if you see through and resist efforts to confuse and co-opt you.” The definition of antisemitism proposed by the speakers last month “is extremely controversial,” she said, opposed by a myriad of individuals and organizations, violating “a foundational building block of democracy: the right to free speech.” She said that Jews are already protected under Title VI; protected political speech criticizing Israel would be barred under the definition, she said. “Schools are, in fact, exactly the place we should talk about what settler colonialism is, compare examples of it, and engage with diverse points of view,” she said. While some students may feel uncomfortable with such conversations, she said, “feeling uncomfortable is not the same as being unsafe; if we protect students from feeling uncomfortable, we protect them from learning.”

Max Page, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, addressed the Commissioner’s retirement, and called for the Board to work with the MTA on lifting the cap on inflation within the foundation budget, and to work on paid parental leave for municipal employees and for a minimum wage for educational support professionals.

The remainder of public comments addressed the charter matters before the Board.
Sonia Pratt, of City on a Hill Charter, which is returning their charter but seeking a change to adopt an upper school model for their final year, outlined the planned focus on the college and career transition of the students graduating in 2025 and 2026 in the next year.
Students from both Prospect Hill Academy Charter–Presley Simelus and Sybille Delice–and Community Charter of Cambridge–Emma Urena–addressed their own experiences at their respective schools, supporting the request for the expansion of their enrollment areas.
Matthew Crowley, superintendent Woburn Public Schools, spoke in opposition to the PHA Charter expansion, speaking on behalf of other superintendents in the proposed expansion, as well, outlining the district’s significant investment in diverse learning and support structures, and work to prioritize meeting the needs of all students.
Tim Nicolette, head of the Mass Charter Public School Association, spoke supporting charter school amendments and consolidations.
Kendra Foley of the Watertown School Committee spoke in opposition of Watertown’s addition to PHA Charter’s zone,  noting that it had been requested but not approved three years ago, and asking what had changed. She outlined the work of the Watertown Public Schools and asked that either the entire amendment to the charter be rejected or that Watertown be struck from it.

Chair Craven thanked Commissioner Riley for his service, reflecting back to her first experiences with him in the Boston Public Schools when she was with the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
Secretary Tutwiler spoke of those receiving Lifetime Achievement Awards at the meeting, saying Massachusetts “long been celebrated for first in the nation outcomes” and that is “largely from the efforts of really talented educators” like those being recognized.
Commissioner Riley announced joint AG, MASS, MIAA free regional trainings for districts and athletic initiatives on addressing hate in school sports, saying more information to districts would follow.
He said, “to the families struggling with FAFSA: it’s not just you” and announced upcoming workshops; “as soon as the student data begins to flow–and there is a meeting tomorrow…–we’ll get the data out to you as soon as possible.” He notes it is worth it to complete the form, especially in Massachusetts, noting the expansion of support for college students: “please don’t give up!”
Regarding Brockton, he noted DESE support for the outside financial review and the recently announced security review.

The Board then turned to recognitions.
Bob Bardwell, executive director of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association, outlned the ways in which school counselors are needed now more than ever, in student mental health, regarding bullying, and college admission. He then introduced 2024 Massachusetts School Counselor of the Year Colin Moge of West Springfield High School, He said, “as a high school student, I struggled in ways I never anticipated” and then spoke of the close relationship he’d established with one student and his family, saying, “he never gave up on himself, and I never gave up on him.” He noted the holistic needs of students brought to counselors every day, but “too often are only a fraction of these needs met.” He requested comprehensive school counselor programs, increasing school counselors, PD, securing wraparound services for students and families, closing that he was there not only “AS a school counselor, but as the PRODUCT of a school counselor.”

Receiving the first of the Lifetime Achievement Awards given at the meeting, Beth Kontos, retiring President of the American Federations of Teachers of Massachusetts, said “it has been an honor to be an educator…the students in my classes have made me so proud.” She said, “some of my former students have become educators” and  “all of them have a special place in my heart…It’s a great career. I hope many more people will join me in this career.” She echoed Page’s earlier comments, calling for fair compensation and paid family medical leave. She noted the successes of the Student Opportunity Act and the Fair Share Amendment, saying, we need a similar funding mechanism to replace and improve school buildings; she said, “it changes the outcomes for the students when they have a building that is nice, and newer, and well cared for, and has all the facilities that they need.” She also said she hoped to see the end of punitive testing and Lawrence coming out of receivership.

Tom Scott, Co-Executive Director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, quipped, “When I heard it was a lifetime achievement award, I wondered if there was something you knew that the doctor wasn’t telling me.” He commended the Commissioner’s work during the height of the pandemic, observing that he gave superintendents his cell phone number, and lauded leadership he contrasted with other states. He spoke of work  together to “bring forward the educational enterprise” rather than being in “a firing circle,” supporting a bill before the Legislature to create a study commission on where education is heading. He noted “turnover of our staff is a major problem,” with 20% of superintendents turning over in an average year, which carries into principalships, and into teaching positions. He asked, “how do we cheerlead from all of our bully pulpits” to create stability in all of our work, including in “school committees, as turnover on school committees is very high, too.”

Daniel Warwick, retiring Superintendent of the Springfield Public Schools, with which he has spent his whole career of over 40 years, having started as a substitute teacher. He thanked Scott and Riley for their work, and recognized Craven’s time at the MSBA, saying “in Western Massachusetts, we’re not used to getting a lot of resources from the eastern part of the state” Springfield did eight school projects in 12 years, and, he said, “it’s the people at the end of the day, but the buildings do make a difference.” He spoke of being a child of immigrants, like so many children in Springfield, and starting his time with the Springfield Public Schools when he entered the doors of kindergarten in 1959.

The Board then passed the requested charter amendments, after clarification via questions from Tutwiler and Member Fisher that PHA was denied an earlier request due to it not meeting legal requirements, and that these requests were being made to meet obligations of the law. The measures were passed 9-1, Rocha opposed.

The Board then received an update on Governor Healey’s proposed FY25 budget from CFO Bill Bell. Additionally, Bell updated the Board regarding ESSER spending as of January: ESSER I and II have been obligated and expended, with approximately $1.2M of ESSER II in late liquidation being spent out. Of ESSER III, 52% of all funds claimed ($860M) with about 48% left. Bell said he would expect that a number of districts will want late liquidation authority on ESSER III. For that, districts have to have obligated funds by end of September, but would have 18 months to spend out; he said he “would expect late liquidation to be a little bit higher than on ESSER II.” Hills asked a clarifying question on how hold harmless funding works. West spoke of Thomas Kane’s recent research on pandemic recovery and advocated for guidance to districts on their spending.

Finally, the Board took up the Commissioner transition. Riley spoke of his time as Commissioner, elevating as most crucial the Board’s passage of update health standards, noting much that is recent across the country. He said he recommended Russell Johnston as acting Commissioner “with all my heart.” After several comments of praise for Riley, the Board unanimously voted in favor of the appointment of Johnston. Johnston said, “student centered has been the theme of the day; we’re going to keep that going forward.”

The Board then voted to go into executive session “for the purposes of pending litigation,” to address five open meeting law complaints filed over the January meeting.

The Board next meets on March 26.