fb-pixel Skip to main content

Disengaged workers at Boston Public Schools are ‘busy acting out their unhappiness’ and undermining colleagues, survey finds

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, fresh off a glowing evaluation from the School Committee, is facing a wave of low morale among school leaders and central office workers.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, fresh off a glowing evaluation from the School Committee, is facing a wave of low morale among school leaders and central office workers, including many who are “busy acting out their unhappiness,” according to an internal Gallup Poll obtained by the Globe.

Overall, 52 percent of school administrators and central office employees are not engaged in their work, “putting time ― but not energy or passion — into their work,” the survey found. Another 20 percent of employees are “actively disengaged,” meaning they are resentful that their professional needs are not being met and are “busy acting out their unhappiness.”

Advertisement



“Every day, these workers potentially undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish,” according to Gallup’s employee engagement survey, which was conducted this month at Cassellius’s request and obtained by the Globe through unofficial channels.

Just 28 percent of respondents reported that they were engaged in their work, meaning they “drive performance, innovation, and move the organization forward.” Some 75 percent of the system’s 805 central office workers and school leaders participated in the survey, which Cassellius intends to administer annually.

The results have not been made public. But when told about the high level of disaffection, a number of educators said it was concerning.

“It’s really sad that you have that many people who feel demoralized in the workplace,” said Kimberly Parker, president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts who has a rising second-grader in the Boston schools. “If the people at top are this unhappy, what does that mean for the rest of us? It will ultimately trickle down to children and families.”

The Boston Public Schools has long been plagued with employee dissatisfaction and dysfunction within its central offices, and the stresses of working through the pandemic likely exacerbated that climate, said Cassellius, who did not find the survey results surprising.

Advertisement



“I think about how I’m feeling personally, you know, I’m exhausted and tired, and so I can’t be surprised that everyone else is feeling the same way too,” she said in an interview, noting everyone has been working long hours, often without vacations. ”When people are working that hard, around the clock, and they’re so exhausted, I can see why we have these kinds of results.”

She noted that some employees or their family members contracted COVID-19, while many others have been experiencing trauma during a time of social and racial unrest.

Still, the proportion of employees who feel engaged in their work is notably smaller than in other K-12 organizations nationwide, according to Gallup. When measuring the level of engagement across a dozen areas, including overall satisfaction, commitment to quality work, and opportunities for professional growth, Boston schools received a rating of 3.62,compared with a national average of 3.99.

Cassellius’ two-year tenure has been rocky. She has taken on a number of polarizing issues, such as overhauling exam-school admission requirements, raising graduation requirements, and reopening classrooms during the pandemic, and in December received a vote of no confidence from the Boston Teachers Union over her handling of school reopenings.

The school committee is expected to vote next week on extending her three-year contract to 2024 because of her positive job review.

Even before the pandemic, improving morale among the more than 10,000 school system employees stood as a huge undertaking for Cassellius. A scathing state review of the school district, completed just before the closures in March 2020, found wide-ranging and long-standing problems, including high administrative turnover, a disconnect between the priorities of the central offices and the schools, and widespread distrust of the central offices.

Advertisement



The state expressed concerns that the climate was impeding efforts to improve academic programs for students and entered into an agreement with the Boston schools to correct an array of problems, including the work environment.

Yet internal turmoil appears to have only worsened since, as Cassellius’ leadership has repeatedly come under fire. She faced an open revolt from school leaders last summer over her school-improvement plans and some student leaders recently called for her resignation over her response to allegations of emotional abuse by a nonprofit leader.

“Everyone is in fear of their jobs and no one is happy,” said one school principal who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the person did not have permission to speak to the media. “If you say something she doesn’t like, you are gone.”

In its performance review last week, the School Committee took a far more positive view, saying, “Her efforts to build a powerful professional culture in the district that is centered around the needs of all of our children in the face of substantive barriers has been remarkable.”

A few members noted, however, that Cassellius has faced discontent within her ranks.

“The pandemic did create situations and scenarios where the superintendent must take actions that, I believe, she deemed best for the district, its students, and the community at large. Some of these actions have caused a negative impact on her relationship with some staff, both at the school sites and central office,” wrote Quoc Tran, a School Committee member and a deputy director at the Office of Diversity and Civil Rights at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Health and Human Services.

Advertisement



Through a spokesperson, Acting Mayor Kim Janey expressed support for Cassellius’ efforts to improve the work environment.

”The mayor understands that this poll is the first step in a cooperative process to identify new approaches and solutions in the coming weeks to enhance the quality of life for our employees and the entire BPS community,” the spokesperson said in a statement. The spokesperson did not say whether Janey supported the contract extension.

Paul Reville, a former state education secretary, said remedying the low morale should be a top priority, calling the level of disengagement “disturbing.”

“Not withstanding the extenuating circumstances over the past year, the numbers here are very high and very concerning,” said Reville, the founding director of the Education Redesign Lab at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “To have an organization with those kinds of morale issues is not sustainable over time and not in the best interest of children.”

Cassellius pledged to improve the workplace culture, saying it has been one of her top priorities since she became superintendent.

Advertisement



“I want people to come to work and be happy and joyful and I want to come to work and be happy and joyful with my colleagues,” she said, later adding, “It’s not going to be easy. It won’t come fast because healing — when people have experienced major trauma — takes a lot of time and so it’s gonna take patience.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.