When Superintendent Victoria Greer read the distraught mother’s letter, she decided to console her, as one Black mother to another.
The mother, Dru Vernet, chronicled on 10 pages her child’s troubling experiences at his Sharon school. A white first-grade student had told Vernet’s son that his skin “looked like poop.” Another student complained the boy’s skin would dirty up the crayons. To Vernet’s surprise, the superintendent wrote back.
“She said, ‘You wouldn’t believe this but I’m going through the same thing your children are going through,’ ” Vernet recalled.
Like Vernet’s son, just one of seven Black kindergartners in the district, Greer was only one of six Black superintendents in Massachusetts at the time. A year later, Greer was out of her job, after contending with what she says were repeated instances of racial hostility from members of the Sharon school committee. Greer, who was in the position for three years, has since filed a discrimination suit, alleging she was targeted because of her race.
“With the exception of Carol Johnson out of Boston, I have never seen a Black superintendent retire in [the more than] 30 years I have been with the [Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents]‚” said Thomas Scott, the organization’s executive director. He and others attribute the shortened tenure to a variety of factors, including people who were pushed out and those who moved to other jobs. “There is a systemic problem.”
Whatever the reasons, a disparity remains. And at a time of national racial awareness, education advocates and students are pressing for more educators of color in positions of leadership. They say it is critical for Black, Latino, and Asian students to see themselves reflected in their teachers and school leaders. Research also shows that students of color have better academic outcomes when taught by at least some teachers of color, and that racial diversity helps break down negative perceptions in their classrooms.
“We need good people and we need to diversify our staff. But where are they going to come from? There is no deep pool,” said New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson, who six years ago was the only Black male superintendent in Massachusetts. “We need to make sure that the field of education is reflective of the world they live in.”
Superintendents of color face challenges they say are unique to them. They say they aren’t always given the benefit of the doubt when crises arise, including during the pandemic. They receive less support than their white counterparts and harsher job performance reviews, particularly in predominantly white municipalities, added Glenn Koocher, who heads the Massachusetts Association of School Committees and has supervised more than 80 superintendent searches.
Those hired from out of town who try to make big policy changes find themselves up against “the old guards [who] will mobilize, try to wait them out, and run them out of town,” Koocher said. He noted that all of the school boards in Massachusetts are elected, except in Boston.
At least 21 of the 275 non-charter public school superintendents — including Boston’s Brenda Cassellius, whose contract was recently extended for two years — are Black, Latino, or Asian. (There were only 10 three years ago).
That number includes at least five superintendents of color who started last week, including in Brookline and Wayland. More than half the superintendents of color have been on the job for fewer than two years.
“The numbers are growing, but are not nearly enough to reflect an ambitious commitment to equity or goals to which we’d aspire,” Koocher said.
Greer came from Nashville in 2013 to work as assistant superintendent of student services in Cambridge. She brought experience, compassion, and grit to the position, said former Cambridge superintendent Jeffrey Young, who hired Greer and encouraged her to advance to the next level.
“I thought that she was absolutely ready to do it,” said Young, who directs Columbia University’s Urban Education Leaders Program.
“I think it’s important for [Black and brown kids] to see someone who looks like them in seats of leadership,” Greer said. “That’s why I’ve decided to … be an example and show kids that they can do it.”
Greer found what she wanted in Sharon, a smaller, manageable school district with 3,700 students, roughly 600 teachers and staff, and a $46 million budget.
The predominantly white school committee, swayed by her vision to lift up the most vulnerable students, offered her a three-year contract in 2017 with the option to renew pending a job review, making her the town’s first Black superintendent.
“She wasn’t hired as an answer to racial problems. She was hired because we thought she was the most qualified person that came before the committee,” said Emily Smith-Lee, who was on the School Committee that hired Greer.
A year after Greer was hired, two new School Committee members, Judy Crosby and Heather Zelevinsky were elected, and that’s when everything changed, Greer alleges.
Greer says Zelevinsky and Crosby shouted at her and refused to acknowledge her presence or refer to her by name at meetings. She said they made disparaging comments about Black students and gave her poor job reviews, while other board members rated her job performance as proficient.
She also came under attack by members of the public. After a community meeting two years ago, she said a parent told her she was not on the same intellectual level as other superintendents.
“I cried all the way home,” she recalled.
Greer said she was accused of trying to dumb down the curriculum; others said she was focusing too much on the few Black students in the district.
In May 2020, she complained to the school committee chair and the town’s attorney that she was being overly scrutinized and discriminated against because of her opposition to racism. “The retaliation from the School Committee was swift,” she said in a complaint she filed with the state. She added that Zelevinsky and Crosby presented “extremely negative and highly subjective evaluations” of Greer.
By the summer, as Sharon residents chanted Black Lives Matter, Greer began to speak out about what she felt was discrimination she had experienced in the town.
By last July, only two of the committee members that hired her were still serving.
That month, the board, without explanation, voted to not renew her contract. In September, Greer filed the complaint, singling out Crosby and Zelevinsky and alleging other board members did not take “any meaningful steps to stop this harassing and abusive conduct.”
Committee members, in their legal response to Greer’s complaints, said they never retaliated against Greer and severed ties with her based on her job performance and language in the contract — not because of her race.
In an affidavit, Zelevinsky denied ever subjecting “Greer to demeaning and racist comments, abusive and disparate treatment, or unjustified and highly subjective attacks regarding her performance.”
In an interview, Crosby said she gave Greer a good review in 2019. But Crosby said the committee’s relationship with Greer became extremely “untenable” last year after Greer, relying on instructions from her attorney, stopped communicating directly with committee members outside of public meetings or without first going through her lawyer.
According to the committee’s legal documents, Greer went on vacation while the district was negotiating with the teachers union about returning to work during the pandemic and the union voted to strike. Committee members and staff were left to handle a “planned illegal strike,” the documents said.
“I’m really offended that my motives are being questioned as anything other than what was in the best interest of Sharon students, staff, and community,” Crosby said.
Greer said that the committee’s legal arguments are false and that she communicated directly with the school committee and participated in the union talks while on vacation.
Being a superintendent can be lonely, especially for female school chiefs and women of color. In some cases, the reason they get hired, including infusing equity in district policies, are the reasons they are let go.
Turnover delays crucial plans, dampens morale, causes vulnerable students to fall further behind, and is a blow to many departing superintendents, said Athol-Royalston Superintendent Darcy Fernandes
“Your reputation is ruined; you have no place to go,” said Fernandes, who is Black
Ventura Rodriguez, a state administrator whose team oversees educator workforce diversity, said he felt frustrated about losing another superintendent of color when Greer was let go in Sharon. “It was like, enough!” he said. “This just can’t be happening without us doing something about it.”
Over the past three years, the state has been intensifying recruitment, training, and support for superintendents of color.
The superintendents association also stepped up coaching, mentoring and support through its new superintendent induction program, and more school committees have been seeking out candidates of color. These efforts have been fruitful. Brookline, South Hadley, Milton, and Wayland hired their first Black superintendents recently. In Everett, the School Committee hired Priya Tahiliani, the first Indian superintendent.
Salem Superintendent Stephen Zrike, who is Latino, said he does not think some communities are ready to engage in conversations about race, equity, privilege, and bias.
“People say they are, and they talk about it,” he said. “But when superintendents challenge the status quo and systems that perpetuate inequities that have long existed for certain students more than others, people start to get uncomfortable.”
And superintendents are pushed out.
Sharon’s new superintendent is a white man. A racially diverse group of candidates was elected to the school committee in May. Crosby, who stepped down and Zelevinsky, who was not re-elected, are no longer on the board.
Greer, who faced questions about what happened in Sharon, was offered the interim job of superintendent in Cambridge.
But she only has been given a one-year trial run.