Several Boston city councilors questioned the leadership of School Superintendent Carol R. Johnson on Tuesday, a day after she publicly apologized for failing to take action when one of her headmasters was arrested for assaulting his wife.
Johnson said she “made a mistake” by not placing Rodney Peterson on administrative leave after his June 17, 2011, arrest and sent the wrong message about domestic violence when she wrote a glowing letter on Peterson’s behalf to the judge who sentenced him to probation.
But support for Johnson remains steadfast where it matters most, in the office of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has the ultimate say about her tenure as superintendent.
“She’s OK with me; she’s done a great job,” Menino said Tuesday in an interview. “She did make a mistake, no question about it. But she’s done a great job moving the system forward.”
However, Councilor John R. Connolly, chairman of the Education Committee, said that Johnson “needs to go” after missteps that forced her to reverse course or apologize.
“I’m totally disturbed by how the situation with Mr. Peterson was handled, but I’m equally disturbed by the emerging pattern of bad decisions by Dr. Johnson,” Connolly said. “This sends the wrong messages to our kids. I appreciate the apology, but setting policies after the fact doesn’t change the need to make good decisions as a leader.”
Johnson’s apology for her treatment of Peterson, former co-headmaster of John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury, capped a turbulent year for her that began with criticism over chronically late buses and included a failed plan to move Boston Latin Academy to Hyde Park.
The School Committee, normally a bastion of support, gave Johnson low marks in several areas of her performance review in January. Johnson’s supporters said that she has become a target for criticism because she is making tough decisions about closing schools and that the apology epitomized one of her strengths. Time and again, they said, she has demonstrated the ability to recognize missteps and change course.
“This really represents her at her best,” said School Committee chairman Gregory G. Groover Sr. “This is what she always does. She is one of the few that I know in a position like hers that can look back and say, ‘I could have done this differently here.’ ”
Johnson’s critics said her handling of the Peterson case is part of a broader pattern that has included a chaotic school closure process, mismanagement of the school food system, and the loss of state reimbursements for unused facilities.
“These issues are calling into question the leadership capabilities of the superintendent,” said Councilor Michael P. Ross, who led an unsuccessful fight against a plan to relocate Fenway High School to the site of Mission Hill K-8 School.
Johnson has made significant accomplishments, several city councilors and supporters noted. She boosted graduation rates and test scores, lowered the dropout rate, and the waiting list for schools has gotten longer, an indication that more families are choosing Boston public schools.
“I think that during her five years we’ve seen some real strides,” said Councilor Matthew O’Malley. “But we’ve also seen some completely avoidable and serious mistakes.”
The Globe reported Sunday that Johnson took no disciplinary action after Peterson was arrested and briefly jailed for punching and choking his wife five weeks after she gave birth to their first child. Johnson told Peterson, who had just been named co-headmaster of O’Bryant, one of Boston’s three exam schools, that he could remain on the job as long as news organizations did not find out, according to someone who was directly briefed by Peterson. Johnson has said she does not recall making that remark.
Peterson later admitted to sufficient facts for a jury to find him guilty. Word that Peterson was on probation for domestic assault leaked last month in Memphis, where he had been offered another job. Peterson resigned as O’Bryant headmaster on June 8 and withdrew his name from the Memphis job a few days later.
Johnson initially defended her handling of the Peterson case, saying she consulted School Department lawyers before deciding what to do. The Boston public schools do not have a formal policy for employees arrested outside school, but it is common practice in government to place employees on administrative leave until legal matters have been resolved.
Johnson also initially stood behind her decision to write a letter to the judge who sentenced Peterson to a year’s probation and a batterers’ program and said she did not think it sent the wrong message to students. But on Monday, after the Globe story ran, she spoke with the mayor and expressed remorse.
“She called me and said: ‘I made a mistake. I should have handled it much differently,’ ” Menino said in an interview. “I told her, ‘If you believe it, you have to say it.’ ”
Johnson said she should have placed Peterson on administrative leave as soon as she learned about the assault. Sending the letter to the judge, Johnson acknowledged, was wrong. “I sent a mixed message to families and students,” she said in an interview late Monday with the Globe. “I can’t undo what I did. I made a mistake, and I wish I could have done things differently.”
On Tuesday, Stephen J. Murphy, council president, defended Johnson, saying the 56,000-student Boston school system has made great progress since she became superintendent in 2007. “I like her and support her” said Murphy.
Councilor Felix G. Arroyo agreed that there were “a number of good things happening with our school system.”
“But I’m troubled by what I see as a lack of long-term planning, which has been evident throughout various starts and stops,” Arroyo said. “I believe her to be an expert in the field, but I believe there is room for improvement.”
Mary Tamer, a member of the Boston School Committee, said the case warrants further scrutiny. “I remain absolutely shocked and appalled,” Tamer said, “by the entire situation and the fact that [Peterson] was allowed to remain around children for an entire year after it occurred.”
Jamie Vaznis of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Andrew Ryan can be reached at acryan@globe.