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Holyoke officials frustrated in bid to regain control of schools

Holyoke Public Schools is one of three districts in Massachusetts run by the state's education department.
Holyoke Public Schools
Holyoke Public Schools is one of three districts in Massachusetts run by the state's education department.

Officials in Holyoke, Massachusetts, say they're frustrated with a response from the state education over a request to begin the process of ending state receivership for the city's schools.

In 2015, the state deemed the district as "chronically underperforming" and placed it under state control.

In September, 2023, the Holyoke School Committee petitioned the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), requesting to take back local control.

In a letter from DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley to Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia on Friday, Riley said more conversations needed to take place and deferred action on the request.

“As we discussed last 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 (Anthony Soto) 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 wrote in the letter.

On Monday, Garcia said he was frustrated by a lack of communication with Riley after the petition was submitted, and that he found out about the deferral after 5 p.m. on a Friday.

"That didn't sit too well with me as far as whether or not the commissioner is prioritizing the city of Holyoke or even talking about the city of Holyoke and is interested in supporting our efforts to regain local control," the mayor said.

Garcia argues the schools should return to local control because receivership has not worked. He cited continued low scores on state standardized testing, known as MCAS, which are designed to measure student achievement.

Garcia also noted the school committee had been stripped of most of its power during receivership. He said it is time for residents to have a say once again in how the schools are run.

Erin Brunelle is vice-chair of the Holyoke School Committee. She said she was hoping for more of a timeline from Riley to begin the process of ending receivership.

"I don't think any of us expected him to say, 'Oh, sure. Yes, you can have your schools back tomorrow,' but we were all hoping for — and urging for — a willful transition phase," Brunelle said.

Brunelle said the school committee will meet next week to consider its options, which could include writing another letter to state officials and forming a subcommittee to oversee the effort.

Soto, the state-appointed receiver hired by the state to oversee Holyoke schools, painted a more positive picture about the situation. Soto previously supported the district's request.

“I am encouraged by the commissioner’s commitment to continuing the conversation about a return to local control,” Soto said in a statement. “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.”

Garcia said over the weekend he had conversations with Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll and Massachusetts Education Secretary Patrick Tutwiler about the situation. He said both were committed to ending receivership.

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Education said in a statement, "The Healey-Driscoll administration's ultimate goal is for Holyoke schools to return to local control, and we will continue to work closely with the city to get there."

Two other Massachusetts school districts have also been under receivership for many years. The Lawrence schools were taken over by the state in 2011, and the Southbridge schools were placed under state control in 2016.

Riley knows the receivership process well; he was the state-appointed receiver for Lawrence schools from 2012 to 2018.

Adam joined NEPM as a freelance reporter and fill-in operations assistant during the summer of 2011. For more than 15 years, Adam has had a number stops throughout his broadcast career, including as a news reporter and anchor, sports host and play-by-play announcer as well as a producer and technician.
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