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Massachusetts Education Commissioner Assumes Control Of Holyoke Schools

The Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, Mitchell Chester, is in Holyoke today.  It is his first visit since a state education board voted earlier this week to put the city’s public schools under state control.

Chester, who is temporarily in charge of the Holyoke schools until a permanent receiver is named, is expected to meet with administrators, teachers, and students at Holyoke High School. There are many questions about the road ahead for the Holyoke schools. Only one other time has an entire school district been placed in receivership in Massachusetts, a state with a proud tradition of local control of the public schools.

Chester, who for months made the case for the state takeover in Holyoke with what seemed at times like piling on with a litany of grim statistics about reading abilities and graduation rates, is now trying to persuade people that receivership is not a punishment or a black mark.

" This is an opportunity for the city, and I want to make sure people on the ground in Holyoke see it as an opportunity," he said.

He has promised there will be no mass firings of teachers and administrators.

" We are not looking to move them out we are looking to engage them in the process," he said.

Chester plans to appoint the permanent receiver for the Holyoke schools within two months.

"  There is a lot of interest in this particular assignment, " he said.

State control of the Holyoke schools is open-ended.  The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which voted 8-3 Tuesday to put the schools in receivership, will decide when to return the system to local control.   The Lawrence Public Schools were put in receivership four years ago.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, criticized the board’s vote to have the state takeover the Holyoke schools.

" This is about protecting democracy and public schools as foundations of democracies," she said. " Public schools need to be democratic institutions controlled by an elected school board."

The top education official in the Baker administration, Education Secretary James Peyser, who is a nationally known advocate for charter schools, endorsed the receivership decision.

Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who graduated from Holyoke High School just four years before becoming the city’s youngest-ever mayor in 2012, agreed with the assessment that the Holyoke schools had hit “rock bottom.”   But, he said he opposed receivership.

Morse said he plans to serve on a local advisory board that will work with the receiver.

" I understand there is a lot of fear, confusion, and unknown and it is our job as elected and appointed community leaders to help education the public about this process," he said.

The night before the vote to put the schools into receivership, the state education board held a four-hour public hearing in Holyoke where more than 60 people spoke, most in opposition to the state takeover.

There was a march and rally outside the hearing venue by labor union leaders and worker-rights advocates opposed to loosing local control of the Holyoke schools.

The activists, calling themselves Reclaim Our Schools, are planning to rally outside Holyoke High School Friday afternoon to coincide with Chester’s scheduled visit there.

The record-setting tenure of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno. The 2011 tornado and its recovery that remade the largest city in Western Massachusetts. The fallout from the deadly COVID outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers Home. Those are just a few of the thousands and thousands of stories WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill has covered for WAMC in his nearly 17 years with the station.
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