The Boston School Committee on Wednesday voted to extend Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’s job contract for another two years.
The 4-1 vote came despite concerns raised by some education observers and mayoral candidates who felt that the city’s next mayor elected in November should have a say in who runs the school system. Cassellius’s contract, which started in summer 2019 and was slated to end in one year without the extension, will now expire on June 30, 2024.
“I’m so very grateful to this School Committee and so very committed to the children of this city,” Cassellius said after the vote. “From our buses to our cafeterias to our classrooms, I’m very grateful and humbled to be able to lead this work.”
Committee member Ernani DeAraujo, who cast the sole opposing vote, did not speak publicly about his reasons. However his portion of Cassellius’s job performance evaluation was the most critical of all the committee members, raising concerns about “managerial and operational issues,” and even suggesting that the city could hire a manager to oversee the district’s operations and Cassellius, while she focuses on strategic vision to suit her greatest strengths.
Prior to the vote, other committee members praised Cassellius’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and her commitment to racial equity and reducing opportunity gaps for students of varying racial, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds.
“I’m looking forward to giving you an opportunity, hopefully in a year not in a pandemic, to hopefully move forward on many things you and your team have been striving for,” said committee chair Jeri Robinson.
In her recent performance evaluation, Cassellius was rated 4.2 points on a five-point scale by committee members. However, Cassellius’s tenure has been turbulent, with frequent criticism from parents for not reopening schools fast enough during the pandemic, while also receiving a no-confidence vote from teachers. She also a year ago experienced open dissent from school principals who were concerned about her leadership.
More recently, she faced calls for her resignation from some students over her handling of allegations of emotional abuse of students on the Boston Student Advisory Council. And an internal Gallup Poll recently found that only 28 percent of BPS central office personnel and school leaders felt “engaged,” representing low morale and high discontent.
Addressing calls by some mayoral candidates and other observers to allow the next mayor to weigh in on their school chief, committee member Michael O’Neill said the committee faced a binary choice to either extend Cassellius’s contract for another two years or not at all. There was no option, given the legal language of the contract, he said, to extend her contract for only a few more months or another single year.
Previous superintendents signed five-year terms, but Cassellius signed a “3 plus 2″ contract, giving officials a chance to decide whether to renew it for the full five years midway through, O’Neill said.
The committee could still fire Cassellius during the contract, O’Neill said, though if it’s without cause she would be entitled to a year’s severance pay. Cassellius made $312,000 in salary and other compensation, according to city data.
O’Neill praised Cassellius’s handling of the pandemic and the politics of school reopening in a year when many other cities’ school leaders struggled.
“Equity is everything about you — you’ve taught me a lot about equity,” O’Neill said. “I do believe you’re on the right path.”
Committee member Hardin Coleman said the extension would bring badly-needed stability in a district that has seen high turnover of superintendents and inconsistent efforts at systemic change.
“It takes time to move forward, to bring everyone’s behavior in line with our value systems and with the pragmatics of the operational plan,” Coleman said.
But some critics said continuity was not a good enough reason to keep Cassellius in charge for longer. Khymani James, a former student representative on the School Committee who recently called for Cassellius’s resignation over the student advisory council controversy, said she didn’t deserve to stay on.
“Stability comes with strong leadership and that’s not what she has shown,” James testified before the School Committee prior to the vote.
Meanwhile, other education observers urged the committee to keep Cassellius at the helm.
Carolyn Kain, a BPS parent, said she worked with five superintendents during the 11 years she served as chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council.
“Every time leadership changes, plans change, and don’t move forward,” Kain said. “It’s incredibly important that you give our children stability after the worst year in everybody’s lives.”
Naomi Martin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.