Boston Councillors: Fight Virus, Address Schools Later

A trio of Boston city councilors pushed back Tuesday against a new agreement with state education officials, asking that it be put on the back burner while students, educators and families adjust to life during the COVID-19 crisis.

On March 13, the same day that Mayor Martin Walsh and superintendent Brenda Cassellius announced the city's schools would close to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced a new, three-year memorandum of understanding with the district.

The agreement came after a state review of the Boston Public Schools, and the department described it as a "first-of-its-kind partnership with the district to address the persistent challenges found in the review."

The MOU involves commitments by both Boston and the state, and the department said a "major focus" of it is "measurable improvements in the 33 schools that face the most challenges in student achievement," which will be deemed "transformation schools."

The department said it will provide additional resources and technical support, and "help BPS diversify its educator workforce, upgrade essential facilities, and ensure schools have access to robust partnerships." The "priority initiatives" for Boston include making improvements at the 33 schools; reducing chronic absenteeism and adopting the MassCore program of studies as a uniform high school graduation requirement; supporting students with disabilities and improving the student transportation system.

In separate video calls during the public comment period of a remote Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting Tuesday, Boston City Councilors Kim Janey, Annissa Essaibi-George and Lydia Edwards asked to pause the agreement during the public health crisis.

"Right now, this is not the time for an MOU," Edwards said. "It's almost offensive that that would be the focus at all in terms of making sure that our kids are somewhat being educated. If you truly are concerned about that, then please allow for this virus to get through, allow us to assess where we are after that, and then we can talk about issues that we are not unfamiliar with."

Edwards said it is "insulting" to her constituents for the state to come in with a "false and unnecessary" sense after underfunding the city's schools for years.

"I also want to note that it does smack of racism, it smacks of classism, it smacks of being completely out of tune with what people of color and low-income individuals need in terms of education," she said.

Essaibi-George, a former East Boston High School teacher and the chair of the council's Education Committee, asked that the state listen to Boston families and educators and allow the schools to focus "on today's issues," like feeding students, finding places for homeless students to stay, and keeping the community safe from the coronavirus.

Janey, the council president, said she wanted to echo remarks from other commenters, opposing any potential of a state takeover of the district.

"This is not the time. Never is the time for state takeover," Janey said. "We need to focus all of our energy on getting through this crisis and making sure that our young people have the tools that they need to be successful."

Other Boston speakers who addressed the MOU during the comment period included Jessica Tang, head of the Boston Teachers Union, and Evelyn Reyes, the student representative on the city's school committee.

The MOU gave the state and the district 60 days to "collaboratively address outstanding details." Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said during the meeting that he and Superintendent Cassellius had already agreed to push that provision back until later in the year, and had notified the teachers union of that postponement.

He described the MOU as a "supportive model" and said it was "never scheduled to go into effect until the fall."

"I would just remind people of a few things -- first and foremost, the MOU, if people read it, [they] will realize that this is not receivership, this it not a zone," he said. "What this is is, there are specific targets in the next three years that we're asking BPS to hit, one of which is about improving those 33 lowest performing schools, where the mayor has generously agreed to give $100 million to support Dr. Cassellius in her work to improve those."

Riley said the agreement also includes "simple things like improving bathrooms" and will hopefully allow the state to provide additional financial support to the district.

"Boston is currently one of the wealthiest per-pupil spending districts in the state, but we think that because of some specific needs that our students have in Boston that we will be able to get additional dollars to them," he said.