The Boston School Committee Wednesday night gave Superintendent Brenda Cassellius high marks on her second annual job review and may reward her with a two-year contract extension in a move that would lock her into the top job as the city elects a mayor.
The praise came on a hectic night during which the board members elected Jeri Robinson as their new chair following a texting scandal that prompted the former chair and another member to resign. The board also delved into the hot topic of potentially changing the admission requirements to the city’s exam schools.
Cassellius told the board that she is “humbled by the ability to lead this incredible district, and I am just grateful for the leadership of the School Committee.”
”You know when I accepted the role of superintendent, it was with full knowledge that BPS was grappling with long standing challenges, none more critical than the deep historical inequities that keep too many of our Black and brown students, our [English language learning] students, and students with disabilities from achieving the success in our schools,” she said. “I came to Boston to disrupt the status quo that has paralyzed the district. ...There’s an urgency to the work that we do together, and the next several years will be pivotal for our district’s success.”
Overall, the board deemed Cassellius’ performance as “effective,” as she navigated the state’s largest school system through the pandemic and leadership changes in the mayor’s office and on the School Committee. She received 4.2 points on a 5-point scale.
On a separate set of indicators, developed by the state to evaluate all public educators, Cassellius received an overall rating of proficient for her management skills -- a rating high enough to trigger a two-year contract extension under her current three-year contract, which is set to expire next June.
Board member Hardin Coleman, who oversaw the evaluation, said he will recommend at the board’s next meeting to vote in favor of a two-year contract extension. Her performance review could also make her eligible for a raise. Cassellius made $312,000 in salary and other compensation, according to the most recent annual payroll data on the city’s website.
The review capped off a turbulent year for Cassellius, who repeatedly took heat from parents for not opening schools fast enough while also receiving a vote of no confidence in December from the teachers union, which raised numerous safety concerns about reopening classrooms. Cassellius also confronted criticism for not getting enough laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to disadvantaged students, even as the district initially received kudos from some corners for a quick rollout in a district that often struggles immensely with operations and logistics.
“Throughout this chaos … Dr. Cassellius has made significant efforts to maintain open lines of communication with all of the BPS constituents to hear their voice and integrate those views into the development and implementation of policy,” the board wrote in the review documents. “Obviously, not everything has gone well, but she has engaged in an integrative process of change that is moving us forward.”
Robinson lauded Cassellius for taking on a number of tough issues, such as overhauling admission requirements to the city’s exam schools and raising graduation standards to align with the admission standards to state universities.
“It has been an amazing two years, particularly this last year which has been so unprecedented in so many ways,” Robinson said. “It took a pandemic to take on exam schools but we have taken it on. It’s a conversation that rocks the city to the core because it’s important.”
The meeting kicked off with the unanimous election of Robinson as the new chair.
A graduate of Girls Latin School, now known as Boston Latin Academy, Robinson was appointed to the School Committee in November 2014 by then-Mayor Martin J. Walsh. The Dorchester resident has extensive experience in early childhood education. Before retiring, she was the vice president of early childhood initiatives at the Boston Children’s Museum.
Typically, the election of a new chair is a jubilant moment, but the discussion and vote proved to be awkward for Robinson and the remaining members, given the circumstances of the leadership void.
“It is with great humility that I accept this position,” Robinson said, reading from prepared remarks. “Like many of you, I am saddened by the resignations of both Alex Oliver-Dávila and Dr. Lorna Rivera. These two women have been extraordinary educators and community advocates, committed to obtaining the best educational opportunities and experiences for all of Boston’s children. And I’m sorry for the circumstances that led to them leaving the committee.”
Oliver-Dávila and Rivera resigned earlier this month after someone leaked text messages they exchanged during a School Committee meeting last October when the board approved a controversial plan to temporarily suspend the entrance test to the city’s exam schools. The move angered many white and Asian parents who considered the changes discriminatory against them and testified that night.
Oliver-Dávila and Rivera, in their text messages, took aim at white parents from West Roxbury. “Wait until the white racists start yelling at us,” Rivera texted to Oliver-Dávila. “Whatever. They’re delusional,” texted Oliver-Dávila, who later added. “I hate WR.”
Some committee members said they thought Oliver-Dávila and Rivera paid too high of a price in resigning, not believing their text messages were a true reflection of their character. It is a similar stance School Committee members took last fall after another former chair, Michael Loconto, was caught on a hot mike mocking the names of some speakers with Asian-sounding names during the same meeting that Oliver-Dávila and Rivera were exchanging text messages.
“I was very, very disturbed and distressed by their decision to step down,” said member Quoc Tran, secretariat deputy director of the Office of Diversity and Civil Rights at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services. “I continue to believe that no one in America or the world has not at least once or several times in their lifetime made comments that are deemed to be derogatory to other types of communities.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey, who appoints the School Committee, said she intends to fill the two vacancies and has made a commitment to increasing Latino representation on the seven-member board. Just one Latino remains, Ernani Jose DeAraujo.
Robinson said she would work to repair the relationship between the School Committee and the community.
”I want to state with conviction that we are committed to regain your trust,” she said. “Just as we are committed to becoming an antiracist school district, we must also recommit to our work to become an antiracist School Committee.”