State lawmakers from the area are taking notice of a possible takeover of the Southbridge school system. State education officials have described the system as being in disarray and a candidate for receivership.
Sen. Ryan C. Fattman, R-Webster, will meet Thursday at the Statehouse with Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester and other members of the Baker administration to discuss the troubled district.
Mr. Chester said during the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's December meeting that he is contemplating a recommendation that Southbridge be deemed Level 5 and chronically underperforming. If the board agrees, the state would appoint a receiver to run the district. The receiver would have the broad authority of both the superintendent and School Committee.
Mr. Fattman said: "The reason why I want to meet with the commissioner is for him to spell out what he’s thinking in that process, before I endorse it 100 percent or reject it 100 percent.
"But I think you have to solve the problem, and what’s been happening, clearly, is unacceptable, and it’s been happening for over a decade."
Asked if he would be in favor of receivership, Mr. Fattman said, "I don’t view receivership with hostility; I see it as an antidote to a problem."
State Rep. Peter J. Durant, R-Spencer, has suggested that Level 5 for Southbridge "has some benefits."
Mr. Durant said, "If we look at the historical data from the schools, it may make some sense to talk seriously about letting the state step in and provide some leadership."
Mr. Durant said he spoke to Mr. Chester about Southbridge schools before Christmas.
"Look, we’re all concerned," Mr. Durant said. "We all want what’s best for kids in Southbridge."
Asked if he was hearing from parents and residents who embrace a state takeover, Mr. Durant said, "I think a lot of people do."
He said his office has been hearing from concerned parents who wonder if they should leave their children in Southbridge, or opt for school choice or private schools.
"To me, that’s a tough decision, one that a parent has to make." Mr. Durant said there are benefits to both staying and leaving.
"If you want to make your school better, stay there and work with everybody and take an active role," he said. "But I do recognize how incredibly difficult the situation is."
Lawrence, which was assigned a receiver in 2012, and Holyoke, assigned one last year, are the state's only Level 5 districts. Each has a turnaround plan under their respective receivers.
The turnaround plans are for three years, at a minimum, said Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis.
But it’s reasonable to assume it could take longer. Lawrence’s, for instance, was renewed recently, she said. In order to exit Level 5 status, the district needs to not only show progress but also demonstrate it is capable of sustaining and building upon that improvement.
Ms. Reis said there has never been an instance in which the commissioner recommended receivership, and the board, after the hearing process, voted against the commissioner's recommendation.
The DESE board meets later this month.
Southbridge has more than 2,200 students, with 72 percent of them classified as having high needs, and 165 teachers. Southbridge was declared an underperforming Level 4 district by the state in 2004. DESE has monitored and managed its accelerated improvement plan since 2012.
More than 10 percent of the district's students were suspended at least once last year, and 34 percent of students at the middle-high school last year failed at least one course, state studies have shown.
State officials say Southbridge's leadership is in disarray, with seven superintendents since 2011.
Town Council Chairman Esteban Carrasco Jr. said, "My view is that we are in need of a change; we are in need of help. Every day that goes by, our children are the ones that are going to feel the effect. Whether the state comes in and takes over, or whether our School Committee continues, all I can do is hope that the right decisions are made on a daily basis."
Mr. Carrasco said Southbridge teachers were giving "a 110-percent effort."
"It's a very difficult environment to teach in when you don’t have consistent leadership on top," he said.
Last year, the Town Council in an 8-1 vote issued a letter of no-confidence in the School Committee to the state. The council at the time cited the prolonged absence of a transparent and traditional search for a superintendent.
Mr. Carrasco initiated the action.
He said he doesn't regret that the letter was issued.
"Considering the circumstances that were before me at the time, I think it was needed," he said. "Unfortunately, we’re still in the position where we don’t have a superintendent."
Mr. Carrasco said he couldn't speak for the council concerning whether it still lacked confidence in the school board.
"There has been a greater level of communication between the School Committee and Town Council, and also our town manager and interim superintendent."
He continued: "I can say that moving forward, as a council, I’m going to vow to do whatever it takes to support our school district, to do what we can for our children, because while adults play these games, our children are suffering."