HOLYOKE — The city’s School Department will remain under state receivership after its petition to terminate the status was denied by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The decision was shared by DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley on Feb. 2 in a letter responding to Mayor Joshua Garcia’s letter sent last September encouraging the state to end its control over the district.

“I commend Receiver [Anthony] Soto for his thoughtful response to the Holyoke School Committee’s petition, which both celebrates the progress that HPS has made under receivership and clearly identifies remaining areas for systemic improvement. Collaboration between the School Committee and Receiver Soto is essential to sustaining the improvements made by the district,” Riley said.

While it was clear there has been progress made for the district, Riley said there are still challenges that remain and that continuing concerted investments in the department’s teaching and learning systems and continuing prioritization of student attendance will be key in sustaining the progress made.

“As we discussed in the fall, state receivership is a temporary status, with a return to local control as the ultimate goal. In light of the progress to date, the department would like to further confer with the receiver and the School Committee about how to sustain and build upon the district’s progress as we make plans for returning the district to local control,” Riley said.

Soto said in a statement he was encouraged by the commissioner’s commitment to continuing the conversation about a return to local control.

“I am committed to partnering with the Holyoke School Committee and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to ensure every Holyoke student develops the skills and accesses the opportunities to graduate high school prepared for life, career and college,” Soto said. “As a Holyoke Public Schools graduate and a long-time resident, I know firsthand and fully believe that we are a community with tremendous strengths, much resilience and the ability to work together towards a common goal.”

In a released statement from the mayor, Garcia called the decision “confusing to the public and deeply disappointing.”

“The receivership message should have been a resounding, ‘yes’ with a commitment to confer on a reasonable timeline for transition to local control. Instead, a different message was sent with no plan, no benchmarks, no firm commitment but just, ‘We are not saying no but, let’s talk more,” Garcia said. “I have no other thought but to think that the Board of Education and the Commissioner of Education representing the commonwealth of Massachusetts have no idea what they’re doing or what they want to do with the receivership situation.”

Garcia, who serves as chair of the School Committee, explained he and Holyoke School Committee member Erin Brunelle spoke to the state’s Secretary of Education Patrick Tutwiller following to the decision. Garcia said Tutwiller acknowledged to him and Brunelle the concerns shared and committed to work with Riley to define a thoughtful and intentional path forward for Holyoke to resume local control.

Also connecting with Garcia after the decision was Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll who committed herself to working with Holyoke to “identify a path forward” out of receivership.

Garcia, in his release following the decision, thanked Soto for his urging of a return to local control.

“Superintendent Soto cited the school district’s work to boost academic achievement, attendance and graduation rates. Those initiatives were complemented by enhanced central office support for school leaders and teachers, and the implementation of strong instructional practices so that students could meet grade-level expectations,” Garcia said. “We did this collaboratively, and as a Gateway City helping the state for decades with its humanitarian crisis. I’m proud of the work our School Committee and superintendent have done on behalf of Holyoke’s students and families. That work will continue, and the day will come when we regain local control.”

Garcia urged residents to contact their elected representatives, the state Board of Education and the Commissioner’s Office and the Governor’s Office and tell them Holyoke needs a clear path to regaining local control.

As of press time, Riley did not respond to a request for comment.

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