Southbridge schools placed in state receiver’s hands

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BOSTON – In the wake of a “parade of discontinuity” and low performance, the Southbridge Public Schools went into state receivership Tuesday by a unanimous Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vote, becoming the third district in Massachusetts to be removed from local control.

“We have a school district that … continues to underperform,” Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said before the vote. “We’ve seen seven superintendents in the last four or five years.”

At a meeting in Roxbury, board members cited appeals from the community for the state to take over the school system.

“I think the community wants this, deserves this,” said Margaret McKenna, a board member and president of Suffolk University who said she is “usually reluctant” to support such a step and sees Southbridge as a special case.

Chester described a “parade of discontinuity” and an “astonishing” lack of guidance for teachers in the district in recommending it be classified a chronically underperforming and put into receivership.

Chester would take over as interim receiver and said he expected appointing a receiver – either an individual or a non-profit – by mid-February. Southbridge follows the districts in Lawrence and Holyoke into receivership. The board on Tuesday also voted to revoke the charter for a Dorchester school, angering parents.

The interim superintendent of the district, Timothy Connors, welcomed the state’s move in Southbridge and said there is good staff and the community is behind the schools, which suffered because of shuffles in top positions.

“It’s primarily been about leadership. I think we got a great teaching staff. We’ve got good administrators. We’re at a good point to move forward,” Connors told reporters. He said, “It’s not the school committee. It’s the lack of consistency with superintendents and high school principals.”

A Sutton resident who said he has 50 years of experience as an educator, Connors said he offered his services to Southbridge and has been the interim superintendent for two and a half months.

Katherine Craven, a member of the education board who previously headed up the School Building Authority, predicted Southbridge would be the “fastest in and out” of receivership.

The department’s report counts five transitions of high school principals since 2010, seven at elementary schools since that time and places blame on the school committee.

“The committee has consistently missed the opportunity to come to agreement about the critical issues facing the district in recent years,” the report said, blaming the “discord” for disagreement over organization of a joint high-school-middle-school, and failure to bring on a long-term superintendent. The report said, “The trauma of a problematic superintendent search in 2010 is still fresh, and the recent selection of a superintendent without a bona fide search, followed by his subsequent departure shortly thereafter, has done nothing to alleviate the public perception that the school committee cannot execute this basic responsibility.”

The department’s report, dated October, said the town council voted no confidence in the school committee last spring, and the committee has “recently engaged in questionable personnel practices regarding the appointment and compensation for a lower-level staff member.”

Ed Doherty, a former official at the Boston Teachers Union and the special assistant to the president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, abstained from the vote Tuesday, citing the ability to redraw contracts that had been collectively bargained when a school system is in receivership.

“I do not believe that collective bargaining is the impediment to student learning,” Doherty said.

Written by Andy Metzger