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Boston Superintendent Brenda Cassellius’ licensing woes generate outrage, empathy

Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius plans to take the MTEL licensing exams on Aug, 14.
Boston School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius plans to take the MTEL licensing exams on Aug, 14.Stuart Cahill/Pool

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Revelations that Superintendent Brenda Cassellius delayed taking the state’s educator licensing exams for more than two years — leaving her without a valid license — are generating outrage on the campaign trail and empathy from some education advocates.

City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is running for mayor, was among the first to weigh in Wednesday night shortly after the Globe broke the news about Cassellius’ lack of a valid license.

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“We expect our educators and staff to have the certifications needed to serve our students. No one, the superintendent included, should be exempt,” Campbell said in a short message on Twitter. “The Acting Mayor should demand she get licensed immediately or ask her to go on leave until she does.”

But Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, which opposes high-stakes testing, said it was understandable that Cassellius didn’t have time to take the licensing exams and pointed out Cassellius will be taking the test soon.

She’s been a little busy, meeting once-in-a-century challenges, but I also think these tests are harmful,” said Guisbond, referring to the pandemic, in a statement. “Dr. Cassellius has a PhD in education and years of experience as a high-level administrator in several states. We should use multiple measures to determine competency for students and teachers, not rely on standardized exams. ... Why are we still using these high-stakes tests in a way that discriminates against so many talented and passionate future and current educators?”

Cassellius’ temporary license to run a school system in Massachusetts expired on Saturday because she never took the MTEL licensing exams, even after receiving two reminders from the state since February. The turn of events came a little more than a month after the School Committee gave her a glowing performance review in her second year on the job and approved a two-year contract extension.

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No one on the School Committee apparently checked to see whether she had taken the certification exams or secured a regular superintendent’s license, even though Cassellius’ contract requires her to hold a valid license. Cassellius apologized to the School Committee Wednesday night for allowing her license to expire and added she is scheduled to take the exams on Aug. 14.

Cassellius blamed the snafu on incorrect information she received from the school system’s human resources office on when her temporary license would expire and School Committee chairwoman Jeri Robinson faulted the office for not alerting the School Committee to any licensing problems.

Yet state rules clearly state that maintaining a valid license “is the responsibility of the educator” and it goes on to say “being employed in a Massachusetts public school without holding the correct license is illegal.”

In order for Cassellius to continue working without a license, she is supposed to obtain a waiver from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, according to state rules. Boston school officials are evaluating their next step.

“We are in active discussions with DESE,” said a school spokesman in a statement. “The superintendent is committed to resolving the matter shortly.”

Latoya Gayle, whose son is a first-grader in the school system, said Cassellius needs to take responsibility for her actions and was disappointed that the School Committee didn’t do its due diligence in vetting her credentials.

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“I don’t believe she should be in charge of the district until she passes the test,” she said. “There is really no excuse why she didn’t have time to take the test. She had two years. ... Our teachers have to do it.”

The licensing lapse is the latest leadership crisis to rock the state’s largest school system, which has experienced the resignation of two School Committee chairpersons and another member in less than a year due to remarks they made that many considered disparaging other racial groups.

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, a Boston school parent and former administrator in the district, was so concerned in June about the chaos on the School Committee that he threatened to temporarily freeze the disbursement of millions of dollars in federal funds until the leadership situation stabilized.

The turmoil is intensifying as the state will be stepping into the running of the Boston school system in a more formal way this upcoming school year under a memorandum of understanding that aims to accelerate the academic performance of dozens of schools and address a range of other systemic problems, including those in the delivery of specialized services for students with disabilities and those learning the English language.

Meanwhile, voters are preparing to elect a mayor this fall, which could lead to more transitions in the running of the school system, including more leadership changes.

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At a press conference on Thursday, Acting Mayor Kim Janey barely addressed the controversy in response to questions from the media.

“As you know, her license has expired,” she said. “She has acknowledged that and she has taken steps to rectify that.”

On the campaign trail Thursday, many candidates were understanding of Cassellius’ plight.

“Our school district has gone through unprecedented upheaval over much of the superintendent’s transition to Boston,” said City Councilor and mayoral candidate Michelle Wu. “While I’m disappointed at the lapse in certification, I’ve been assured that she is taking prompt action to resolve this before the start of next school year.”

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, who also is running for mayor, urged Cassellius to regain licensure quickly.

“Annissa believes that the Superintendent should of course be certified, and must take steps towards completing the test and receiving certification as soon as possible,” said Nicole Caravella, a campaign spokesperson. “This is a critical time in our city, and we need to get this done so we can focus on our students.”

Another mayoral candidate John Barros, the city’s former chief of economic development, said he had full confidence in Cassellius’ ability to rectify the licensing issue.

“Once I learned of the certification lapse, I spoke with Superintendent Cassellius, who assured me this is something she takes very seriously, has already scheduled a test, and that the lapse only occurred because of confusion around deadlines and extra demand that came with the pandemic,” he said in a statement.

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Domingos DaRosa, who is running for City Council and spoke out against the School Committee’s extending Cassellius’ contract in June, placed some blame on the School Committee, whose members are appointed by the mayor.

“It’s sad that the School Committee renewed her contract without doing a thorough background check to make sure her credentials were up to par,” said DaRosa, who also faulted Cassellius for not completing her licensure requirements. “If you’re a doctor, you don’t let your license expire. If you’re a lawyer, you don’t let your license expire. These licenses are in place to protect the people you serve.”

Representative Elizabeth Malia, a Boston Democrat, said it was understandable that Cassellius ran out of time to take the tests and credited her for bringing stability to a department that had been in turmoil for years.

“I’ve been grateful to have her on board,” she said. “There’s a lot less confusion and chaos. I wouldn’t wish that job on anyone. It’s juggling a beehive.”

Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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