MALDEN — Jeff Riley, the superintendent and receiver of Lawrence Public Schools, is on track become the state's next education commissioner after an 8-3 vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Monday.

Praising Riley's work to turn around a struggling school system and narrow achievement gaps as well as his skills at building relationships, board members who backed Riley described him as the one of three finalists best suited to step into the job and deliver results.

"For what we've said we want to see done and the frustration we have about lack of progress on the achievement gap, the entire country points to one place where real success has been managed, and it's really hard," board chair Paul Sagan said. "And that's Lawrence, Massachusetts, and there's one person who has done that work, and that's Jeff Riley."

Three board members -- Amanda Fernandez, Margaret McKenna and Mary Ann Stewart -- cast their votes for Angelica Infante-Green of the New York State Department of Education, and no one voted for Texas educator Penny Schwinn.

Fernandez said Infante-Green was the most qualified for the job administratively and presented the state with the opportunity to appoint the first woman and first Latina to helm the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Speaking of the importance of representation in leadership, Fernandez, the CEO of Latinos for Education, said her 10-year-old daughter wants to be a teacher and was moved by a recording of Infante-Green's interview.

"I could see that she related to and understood the importance of the lived experience of Angelica, and that she pours into her work every day, because at her core this is her motivation for her life's work," Fernandez said. "And as I watched my daughter watching that video, I understood what it means to be what you can't see ... My daughter and thousands of children in Massachusetts need to be able to be what they can see, no matter what field they go into, but I think education is really important."

All the state's education leadership roles are held by men, including Education Secretary James Peyser, Higher Education Commissioner Carlos Santiago, and Early Education and Care Commissioner Thomas Weber, McKenna said.

Board member Michael Moriarty, a Holyoke resident, voted for Riley but said it was "very hard for me" given the demographics and needs of his community to "bypass the opportunity for a brilliant, articulate, accomplished Latina educator." He praised the outcomes for English language learners in Lawrence and Riley's hiring decisions.

Riley will step into a post now filled on an acting basis by Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson, who stepped into the position after the June 2017 death of longtime Commissioner Mitchell Chester.

Chester tapped Riley as Lawrence receiver in January 2012.

Before that, Riley was academic superintendent and chief innovation officer at Boston Public Schools. He has also worked as a teacher in Baltimore and served as principal of middle schools in Boston and Tyngsborough.

Riley announced in November that he would step down as Lawrence receiver at the end of this school year, and Wulfson said then that a new model would be introduced for the city’s schools.

A nonprofit board will be created to oversee the district and choose a new superintendent. That plan is still in place, Sagan said Monday.

In a statement distributed by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, Riley said he was honored to be recommended as the next commissioner.

"Massachusetts is a national leader in education, and I look forward to narrowing achievement gaps within the state and ensuring that all of our students have the support and opportunities they need to be successful," he said.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, the Senate chair of the Legislature's Education Committee, called Riley "an action-oriented leader -- a trait people will alternately love and hate, depending on the issue."

"No matter what, I expect he'll shake things up at DESE," the Jamaica Plain Democrat said in a statement. "And I believe that Jeff's true north is what's going to move the dial for kids, especially those who have so often been left behind."

Chang-Diaz said she also would have been "thrilled" to work with Infante-Green, describing her as a "truly excellent applicant" who offered the board a chance to shift the state's education leadership to more closely reflect the state's workforce and student body. "They will need to redouble their efforts in this respect," Chang-Diaz said.

In his new role, Riley will face a learning curve Sagan said would not be "really steep."

"He's been here, he's lived policy questions both in Boston and in Lawrence and in the suburbs," Sagan said. "He understands the politics, he understands the budget constraints, he's certainly been to Beacon Hill before and talked to legislators. That's not going to be new. I think what will be different is understanding how setting policy and pushing it into the field is different from being in the field and receiving it."

--Katie Lannan, State House News Service

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