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Metro

Adrian Walker

Finding a role for John Connolly

It would not be correct to characterize it as a “team of rivals,” but new Mayor Marty Walsh has made a point of reaching out to his former opponents since being elected in November.

That isn’t surprising, given that three of them endorsed him and played key roles in his general election campaign. Felix Arroyo was named head of human services last week. John Barros has been active in the transition, helping to sort out the role of the agencies that handle development and housing.

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But one of Walsh’s most talented opponents is out of the mix, and I think he could play an important, albeit temporary, role.

The search for a replacement for Dr. Carol R. Johnson, the retired school superintendent, has barely started — delayed, in part, by the election. But a search committee is going to be named sometime in the next few weeks, and John Connolly would be a good choice to lead it.

Connolly knows the School Department well. His six years on the City Council were almost entirely devoted to education. In running for mayor, he staked his entire candidacy on the need to improve the schools. It is true that he and Walsh expressed substantially different ideas about how to fix them, with Connolly espousing a scorched-earth approach to rehabbing the bloated bureaucracy on Court Street. Walsh’s ideas are more, well, measured.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Walsh was noncommittal about asking Connolly to help find a new superintendent. He did say that he and Connolly recently had a light-hearted conversation in which Connolly reiterated, in response to questions from reporters, that he has no interest in being superintendent. Walsh said he is open to talking to him more substantively about what's next for the schools.

Walsh said the search committee will probably have nine members — the size has varied in the past few searches — and he hopes its members will take to heart his priorities of expanding early childhood education, attacking the achievement gap and strengthening workforce development, among others. For sure, diversity will be an enormous consideration in the makeup of the committee as well, and rightly so.

By statute, the Boston School Committee picks both the search committee and the superintendent. In reality, the mayor wields as much influence over both as he chooses to.

“Michael O’Neill and I have to get together,” Walsh said, referring to the chairman of the school committee. “We’ll be forming the search committee soon.”

O’Neill, for his part, said there has been no discussion yet on who would chair the search committee. Recognizing that potential applicants would want to know who they would be working for, the School Committee has moved slowly over the past few months, getting guidance from consultants and activists about the needs of the system rather than seeking out potential applicants.

There is no official timetable for picking a new chief. As a matter of common sense, it would seem like a good idea to have a superintendent in place by the time school opens in the fall. That would probably require picking up the pace, and soon.

But O’Neill said the committee is more concerned about finding the right person than acting quickly. “Boston has been described as a plum assignment,” O’Neill said. “We will attract a top tier of candidates.”

Connolly’s interest in serving on the search committee is unknown. He declined to comment on any aspect of the search Tuesday.

The most important quality Connolly could bring to a search is a willingness to bring fresh thinking to what the job requires. The incremental pace of change in the School Department has been a huge problem for years, and the schools won’t be fixed by a series of small gestures.

No matter who runs it, the people who help pick the new schools chief need to be willing to think big about its needs. Connolly could be that person.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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