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Interim education commissioner Russell Johnston 'understands western Mass.'

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden.
Jesse Costa
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education unanimously voted Tuesday to make Russell Johnston interim commissioner of the state's K-12 public schools.

Johnston will take over for Jeffrey Riley, who last month announced he is stepping down on March 15 for personal reasons. Riley recommended that Johnston earn an annual salary of $246,636. Riley currently earns around $257,005, according to state records.

At the meeting, Johnston thanked Riley for suggesting him to the state board. He said he looks forward to the work ahead, keeping students at the center of education.

"We’re going to keep the theme moving forward undoubtedly — our deep, deep commitment to the students who I always say we have the privilege to serve here in Massachusetts."

Much of Johnston's early career focused on special education, as a teacher and administrator in the West Springfield Public Schools. At the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), Johnston is now a deputy education commissioner.

The immediate work ahead in Holyoke

Shortly after Johnston's confirmation Tuesday, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia said Johnston was a "fantastic" choice.

"Having someone like Russ come out of West Springfield, he understands western Mass.," Garcia said. "It's refreshing to see someone appointed in that role— as it relates to our current position in receivership and where that stands."

Among the assignments Johnston will inherit from the outgoing commissioner is a petition from the Holyoke School Committee, which Garcia sits on, to end receivership.

The district initiated the process last September. The state took over control of the district in 2015, largely because of "chronic underperformance" of students.

Holyoke officials say they have been frustrated with Riley, especially his most recent response to their inquiry seeking a timeline to end state control. Riley last month said more time was needed.

Garcia spoke with Johnston about the receivership recently he said, shortly after Riley suggested Johnston as a temporary commissioner.

Around the same time, Garcia said he also spoke with Massachusetts Secretary of State Patrick Tutwiler and Lieutenant Governor Kim Driscoll.

"It's so refreshing when when all your leaders are on the same page. It didn't seem or feel that way with Commissioner Riley," Garcia said.

Holyoke wants to have concrete conversations about how to work with DESE as partners, Garcia said. The school committee didn't have that with Riley Garcia said, adding, "it was always very vague, very broad and hyper focused on outcomes."

There's more work to be done in Holyoke Garcia acknowledged — and it can be done under local control he said.

When you're talking about academic outcomes in communities in receivership (Southbridge and Lawrence schools are also under state oversight), Garcia said the focus needs to shift to improving the quality of life in "predominantly black and brown communities that have social determinants of health issues and [other] challenges."

A day of western Mass. educators in the spotlight

Also at the meeting Tuesday, DESE honored Springfield Superintendent Daniel Warwick with an Award of Lifetime Achievement. Warwick will retire at the end of the school year, after 38 years as an educator.

Commissioner Riley lauded Warwick’s educational excellence at local and national levels, highlighting Warwick’s role as a principal and his tenure as superintendent marked by a collaborative, data-driven approach.

Secretary Tutwiler described Warwick as a contributor to Massachusetts' educational success narrative, emphasizing his impact on the educational landscape and legacy of leaving the “education vocation better than you found it.”

Warwick, a lifelong Springfield resident, reflected on his lifelong commitment to education.

“Growing up my father always told me that becoming a teacher was the noblest endeavor one could engage in. And as I look back, he was so right,” said Warwick.

A western Mass., educator at an earlier stage of his career was also recognized by state officials.

West Springfield High School's Colin Moge was named the 2024 Massachusetts School Counselor of the Year.

Colin Moge on right, on left is Bob Bardwell, of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association.
Massachusetts School Counselors Association
Colin Moge on right, on left is Bob Bardwell, of the Massachusetts School Counselors Association.

Moge relayed how he struggled in high school and almost dropped out, and how his own school counselor was a guide to succeeding.

He spoke about the challenges his own students are experiencing, from the benign — to the serious, like chronic absenteeism and homelessness.

"While neither administrators nor classroom educators, we find ourselves as liaisons for a host of parties," Moge said. "Families, community agencies and of course the students themselves. On any given day we could be coordinating transportation, supporting students through social, emotional crises, and assisting others in their post secondary journeys."

Moge has been at West Springfield High School since 2018 and he took the opportunity to say to state education officials that more counselors are needed in districts, to serve students' needs.

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."