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HOLYOKE — Following the Massachusetts Commissioner of Education’s decision to have Holyoke schools remain under state receivership, the School Committee discussed the best way to respond to the decision during its Feb. 12 meeting.

Ultimately the committee decided to return to the discussion at its Feb. 26 meeting but not before discussion on the best approach in responding to the disappointing news.

Holyoke has been under control of state receivership since 2015 and had recently sent a letter to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education toward the end of 2023. DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley did not accept the request and instead said he was “deferring a formal determination” and looking forward to continuing work with the city on identifying the best track out.

Riley also added in his letter that continued collaboration and investments in the district’s teaching and learning systems, as well as focus on student attendance was the key in keeping up with the district’s progress.

All committee members present at the meeting expressed disappointment with the decision. Mayor Joshua Garcia, who is chair of the School Committee, said in a statement immediately following the response that he has no other thought than to think DESE has, “no idea what they’re doing or what they want to do with the receivership situation.”

School Committee member Erin Brunelle said in speaking for her and Garcia, who was not at the meeting, “The shared sentiment is disappointed and discouraged with a lack of a timeline. With the lack of the clear steps moving forward. We are symbiotic in our feelings towards the fact that if there is needed time to confer, then those conferment’s should have begun after we submit our petition on September 18.”

She added next time the commissioner visits the district he needs to meet with the committee as a full body and in a more formal setting.

“Some of our general messaging too is, it’s a failed experiment. Receivership is a grand experiment that has failed,” Brunelle said.

Brunelle added she questioned the progress the district has made under state control to this point. She pointed out that when looking at Holyoke’s data from MCAS testing for third grade English language arts and math, and drop-out and graduation rates during the district’s time under receivership, the numbers that should be rising are decreasing and vice versa.

“When I look at the commissioner’s letter and he talks about progress, I question and say where’s the progress? When I look at the commissioner’s letter and it says we as a district aren’t ready, well who is we as a district? Because last I knew, for the last 9½ years we, as a school committee, haven’t had direct say in how we as a district are run. So why aren’t we as a district ready to take over having local control, when we as a district aren’t responsible for these failures that we’re seeing in our education system,” Brunelle said.

Discussions at the meeting also featured to how strongly should they respond in expressing their disappointment and addressing what the real roadblocks are that still stand in the way in exiting receivership.

“This is a multi-dimensional problem,” said School Committee member Gloria Caballero-Roca. “The cities that are so underfunded keep being blamed for our problems when these are systemic problems.”

Caballero-Roca added that housing and food insecurity issues as well as access to mental health and transportation must be improved in the city before conditions in the schools can change.

Fellow committee members Ellie Wilson, Rosalee Tensely Williams and Mildred Lefebvre argued the letter should express more decorum. Wilson added taking the time to think about the right language in expressing how they were eager and ready to work out of this would help bring a more collaborative approach to the dealings.

“We don’t want to antagonize the person who makes the decision,” Wilson said.

Wilson added while she was disappointed in the news, it would be “foolhardy” to respond to Riley without admitting the district still had some work to be done. Lefebvre added a new draft of the letter should reflect respect and professionalism from the school district.

The draft letter discussed during the meeting, which was written by Garcia, described the district feeling confused and disappointed in Riley’s letter pushing off the state’s determination on the request to end receivership.

“Delaying your decision — correction: indecision — until the evening of the last day was inconsiderate and frustrating. This feeling was exacerbated by the subpar Spanish translation of your message, which demonstrated a lack of consideration for our Spanish-speaking community members,” the draft stated.

Other requests inside the draft included setting a definitive plan with metrics and milestones set, and a review of state resources designed to help school districts’ effort to transition back to local control.

Reminder Publishing reached out to Riley for clarity on what the district should be focusing on to regain local control but did not receive a response by print time.

Later in the week on Feb. 15, Riley officially announced in a letter to the state’s education board he would be stepping down from his role in March. Riley explained in the letter that due to his aging parents, he could not fully commit to the responsibilities the position demands.

Garcia released a statement in response wishing the commissioner well and admired the decision to choose the well-being of his parents over the job.

“If our most recent dealings with his office have been contentious, our dealings with the commissioner over the years have been professional and cordial,” Garcia said. “I spoke with the Commissioner’s office Thursday afternoon and was pleased to learn that the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will continue working with Holyoke’s School Committee and school superintendent to establish a path out of receivership — with a timeline — to restore local control.”

Holyoke continues to be one of three Massachusetts school districts under state receivership. The school committee plans to resume this discussion with a new draft at its Feb. 26 meeting.

tlevakis@thereminder.com | + posts