Public Policy Updates: March 2022 Board of Ed

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met on Tuesday, March 22, 2022 at 9 am; the agenda can be found online here. The video of the meeting is here.

Chair Katherine Craven opened the meeting by speaking of the Board being reminded of gratitude, as the Board plans to honor MEMA, the National Guard, the Malden police, and others during the meeting, followed by a presentation on the Springfield Empowerment Zone, which she calls “a great shining example” of the state’s cooperation with districts. She speaks of the work of the Board now “knowing we’ve turned the corner” on the pandemic.

Commissioner Jeffrey Riley noted that the Board has asked for an update on the Boston Public Schools on the second anniversary of the agreement between the Department and the district, noting that it is not on the agenda today. He praises Superintendent Brenda Cassellius for the district’s having made significant progress, noting the adoption of MassCore, bathroom upgrades, and other issues. The Department has concerns about special education, English learners, on time bus arrival data, and the accuracy of graduation data.
Secretary James Peyser spoke of the eight additional early college programs, bringing the total to fifty. He also announced that statewide STEM Summit is on April 28, both in person and online across the state. He also noted that the Governor has proposed a supplemental budget which has $140M in workforce development funds for Ch. 766 schools.

Public comment opened with Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, who noted that she spoke of the Boston Public Schools not only as the mayor of the city, but also as the mother of two Boston Public Schools students. She thanked the state for their partnership. She said that she sees the Departments second audit as a chance to review progress that the district has made as well as a chance to find the places that need further follow-up. She said, “I have seen firsthand dedication and commitment to achievement,” as well as places that the district falls short. “We must do better,” she said. She is pushing for “a whole of government approach” to education, and she noted the various other departmental work doing so; the work of the city is “what ends up showing up in our schools and classrooms.” She said she is excited to be working on the search for the next superintendent. She said, “It is with all of this in mind that I firmly oppose receivership,” as it would be counterproductive.

Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia, chair of the Boston City Council Education Committee, said she was humbled to be back before the Board, having spoken before them in the past as a parent activist. She noted her being among those who opposed receivership for Holyoke, saying “every single time that we advocated for dollars we were met with opposition.” Of the three districts voted into receivership by the Board, Mejia related, Southbridge and Holyoke are, by the state’s measure, the worst and second worst performing districts, and Lawrence, after an uptick, is now among the bottom six percent. As 77% of Boston voters support moving to an elected school committee, this is “the wrong move,” she said; “that kind of thinking lacks innovation and intentionality.” She called for the Board to show what is possible “when we lean into discomfort…let’s all take responsibility and accountability around this.”

Vice-Chair of the Lawrence School Committee Jonathan Guzman spoke in opposition to another district being put into receivership. He asked, “why do you still think that takeovers are saving…when you’ve been in control of the Lawrence Public Schools for ten years?” Noting that the Board members and Commissioner all have made a commitment to be anti-racist, he said that, to do so, they must first show some respect for communities of color.

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang also spoke in opposition, saying that this second audit concerns staff, further frightens families, and upends teachers’ plans for the coming week. She said, “receivership cannot and should not be part of any BESE conversation” if your goal is to support the Boston Public Schools. Parent and teacher experiences with receivership both in and out of Boston were likewise cited as reasons for the Board not to consider receivership for Boston.

There was also parent testimony regarding the need for statewide support for students with dyslexia, and remarks from officials from Greater Commonwealth Virtual Charter School and TEC Academy regarding their recommendations for renewal.

Despite the item not being on the Board’s agenda, Secretary Peyser then read a statement, defending state receivership as a necessary option for the state to have. Riley noted again that this was not on the agenda. Craven asked what the timeline would be; Riley noted again that this would be on the April agenda. Member Darlene Lombos asked what timeline was followed with other receivership districts; Riley said that he did not have it in front of him.

After recognition of MEMA and the National Guard, the Board next heard from Mayor Domenic Sarno and Superintendent Daniel Warwick of Springfield, who from Springfield via video spoke highly of the “partnership” of the district with the Department in the Springfield Empowerment Zone. Sarno said, “the empowerment zone has been a success here in the city of Springfield.” Both took the opportunity to praise Chair Craven for her past work with the Massachusetts School Building Authority. They said, “We definitely needed more flexibility with” our unions,” and “we needed fast action for our schools.” They said the Zone was now “part of” the governance model of the district.

Craven said this discussion was “in stark opposition” to other discussions during this meeting, as it is a place where the state is working with the district.

Matt Brunell, Colleen Curran, co-executive directors of Empowerment Zone, spoke next. They spoke of “productive impact” and school-based autonomies in curriculum, staffing, budget, schedule, and culture. Of the nine original principals, only two remain, who are now running multiple schools within the Zone. They were early adopters of the diversification grant. They spoke of a pathway to equitable leadership. They have hired four special education director-level positions to move a school-based model for IEPs.

Student member Eleni Carris Livingston said she was very excited to read about the centering of students in this work. She asked how they build trust; they said it “begins with courage” and also involves listening.

Member Matt Hills asked how the schools in the Zone were chosen. Curran said that they originally were designated as Level 4 schools; the law allows the superintendent to designated a non-profit to run schools. In response to a second quesiton from Hills, Curran explained that the teachers’ contract is bargained with the teachers union, but there is a “carve out” for building conditions that are decided at the building level.

Member Marty West said his question on such projects is always “what’s the end game…and if it is a better model of governance, why not turn the whole district into the empowerment zone, or would that raise matter of scale?” Brunell, noted that his response may seem somewhat Jesuitical, said the larger policy questions were not for him, but the work of the sixteen schools was. Warwick added that to take away contractual flexibility would be difficult “and there’s no public demand.” Member Michael Moriarty asked for further information to be shared about their long-term college attainment data.

The Board passed the “certificate renewals” for the two virtual schools before them, with Moriarty saying, “thank God we didn’t overreact” to the previous reports of gaps in how these schools are working with subgroups. Moriarty also suggested that it was time to review what might have been gained during these past times.

The Commissioner briefly spoke to his COVID update, saying that “Fauci says” to expect an uptick but not a surge but the state would continue to monitor rates. He also noted that districts’ updated SOA plans are due April 4; districts will then get feedback from the Department. Plans will be publicly posted. He also briefly noted the “Investigating History” pilot in which some districts are participating.

The Board voted out to public comment a proposed amendment to the state regulation on accountability. As described at February’s meeting, the Department is applying for flexibility around certain federal accountability requirements; the state’s regulation then needs to be aligned with that proposal. The Department plans to report district, school, and student group-level performance data for each of the approved accountability indicators, as well as certain normative measures (e.g., school percentiles), naming lowest performing 5% of schools, schools with the lowest performing 5% of student groups, and any school with a group that is below that of the 5th percentile schools. The Department will not be issuing targets for schools and districts this year, instead using this year as a new baseline. The Department would expect to issue targets moving forward.

Finally, the Board received an update on budgeting. CFO Bill Bell informed the Board that the Department has now approved nearly all of the district ESSER applications; those applications were praised as planning good work and being very creative. In terms of the drawing down of funds, Bell reported that of ESSER I, 86% has been claimed; of ESSER II funds, 29% has been claimed;  and of ESSER III funds, 9% claimed (that last is good for another 2 1/2 years). The supplemental budget spoken of by the Secretary is being watched. The Department is also in conversation with House Ways and Means and, to a lesser extent, Senate Ways and Means for their planned budgets.

The meeting then adjourned. The Board is next scheduled to meet on Tuesday, April 26.