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Mass. official: Holyoke schools 'officially entering the transition process to end state control'

Acting Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Russell Johnston attended a Holyoke School Committee meeting, Monday March 25, 2024. He discussed the state's transition plan, to return control of the school district to the city. If successful, the state will end almost a decade of managing the district's budget and many policies after a district receives a designation from the state of "chronically underperforming" and gets put in receivership.
Jill Kaufman
Acting Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Russell Johnston attended a Holyoke School Committee meeting, Monday, March 25, 2024. Johnston discussed the state's multi-month transition plan to return control of the school district to the city. If successful, the state will end almost a decade of managing the district's budget and many policies.

A return to local control of Holyoke Public Schools is in sight.

After almost a decade without power to make decisions about budgets or policies, Holyoke School Committee members met with acting Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Russell Johnston Monday for two hours at Dean Technical High School.

The discussion focused on how Johnston and the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) will work with a newly formed subcommittee, comprised of some of the local elected school officials in the room, to transition the district back to local control.

Holyoke schools went into receivership in 2015 after the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to designate the district "chronically underperforming," based largely on student MCAS scores.

Toward the end of the meeting, Holyoke School Committee Vice Chair Erin Brunelle sought reassurance that local control would really return.

"OK, so, we will let you get back to Boston, but if I may just put you on the record," Brunelle said to Johnston, "Are you saying that you are officially recognizing that we're entering the transition process to exit receivership?"

Johnston took a beat and replied, "We are officially entering the transition process to return to local control."

School committee members cheered and applauded.

"I could cry," Brunelle said. "We're up for it. Collaboration is everything."

A goal of local control in the next school year

In order for the district to return to local control DESE has mapped out the expected "statutory role of a school committee in a non-receivership district," according to a March 15th document from the department.

The document also outlines a "draft process" for collaboration between the school committee, Superintendent/Receiver Anthony Soto and DESE.

Johnston said he or his chief of staff, Lauren Woo, will be at the monthly meetings, with the district's newly formed transition to local control subcommittee, scheduled into August.

The "action steps" they will work on include how the school committee will use student achievement data, work collaboratively with "stakeholders" and fulfill legal and fiduciary responsibilities — including collective bargaining contracts for educators.

They will develop a transition plan together, Johnston said, and it will allow school committee members to effectively run the district.

"We have the kind of key roles of the school committee. The hiring and evaluating of the superintendent policy, budget, a focus on improvement, a focus on collaboration," Johnston said. "We need to look at those topics and then see how we can essentially weave them together."

Johnston acknowledged the work the committee had already done to improve learning.

Getting to this point

Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia, who is on the school committee, said a combination of factors make it the right time to end state oversight.

"We have a governor that committed on day one [after being elected], wanting to have a plan on her desk on what a transition [to local control] is," Garcia said. "And I think we had a commissioner that was not on the same page," Garcia added, referring to DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley, who stepped down March 15th, after six years in the position.

The city has been eager to work with DESE as a partner, Garcia said, wanting more communication about how to work together toward a return to local control.

Last year, the school committee, which includes state-appointed receiver and Holyoke School Superintendent Anthony Soto, formally petitioned Riley to end receivership.

In February, Riley deferred action on the request. In a letter, he told Garcia that more conversations needed to take place first.

"Now we have [Johnston] who wasted no time, and came straight to the table, and also actually committed to be the one that comes to each of our [subcommittee] meetings between now and August," Garcia said.

DESE's goal is to have a transition plan in place by September.

Updated: March 27, 2024 at 2:44 PM EDT
This story has been updated to include additional comments from Russell Johnston and other details.
Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."

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