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Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius warned that her authority may be limited until she passes licensing exam

State officials warn that other administrators should sign legal documents in coming weeks

Dr. Brenda CasselliusMatt Stone

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Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius should avoid signing any legal documents over the next month while she awaits the results of her licensing exam, the state education commissioner told the Boston School Committee Tuesday. Her superintendent’s license expired on July 31 after she failed to take the qualifying exam over a two-year period.

Cassellius has said she is scheduled to take the licensing test on Aug. 14, but the results aren’t expected until Sept. 10. As a result, she will likely remain unlicensed during a key period during which the system prepares to reopen schools to students amid a lingering pandemic. It is unclear whether she will have power to hire or fire anyone while she is unlicensed or take other key actions.

In his letter to the School Committee, Education Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley Tuesday wrote that “in an abundance of caution, I recommend that, during this interim period, a district employee who holds a superintendent license review and sign off on any matter that requires, as a matter of law, action by a superintendent.”

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In response to Riley’s letter, a spokesman said that a member of Cassellius’s leadership team who holds a current superintendent’s license will be “side-by-side with her in decision-making.”

Cassellius apologized to the School Committee last week after The Boston Globe published a story about her license lapsing, saying it was due to a misunderstanding over licensing deadlines.

Cassellius’s temporary license expired July 31, leaving her technically ineligible to run the school system.

She was hired in 2019 and would have been required to take the MTEL Communications and Literacy Skills exam within a year like all other educators in Massachusetts.

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But because of the pandemic, license expiration dates were extended until July 31, 2021. As of that date, Cassellius was the only superintendent in Massachusetts, out of more than 200, without a valid license.

Cassellius, a former education commissioner in Minnesota, and a critic of standardized testing, told the Globe last week that she had no philosophical objections to the tests. She said she was not being “a conscientious objector or something like that.” Rather, she simply hasn’t had the time to take it.

“I have been busy handling a pandemic. It’s a five-hour test, by the way,” she said, later adding, “I’ll do the task, it’s required, it’s law. I respect that.”

Cassellius, who holds educator licenses in her home state of Minnesota, including one to work as a superintendent there, told the Globe earlier, “I just don’t need anything hanging over my head. I don’t need anyone questioning my competency or trying to, you know, cause muck in the mayoral race . . . "

The Boston School Committee, which appeared largely unfazed by Cassellius’ licensing issues, had asked Riley simply to “reconsider” Cassellius’ failure to take the exam — in other words, let her continue to do her job without a license.

“I have full faith in Superintendent Cassellius’ ability to effectively lead this district,” wrote School Committee chair Jeri Robinson to Riley on Aug. 6. In the interest of mitigating disruptions in order to continue our focus on the important work ahead, I humbly request that you reconsider Superintendent Cassellius’ license status until such time as she fully meets the state examination requirement so that she can continue to lead the district without disruption.”

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Riley took that request under advisement, asking the School Committee to confirm in writing that Cassellius will take the test Aug. 14.

Education officials privately expressed concern that any actions she takes while unlicensed could trigger legal challenges in the future.

If Cassellius does not pass the test, the School Committee would have to request a waiver from licensing rules, state officials said.

“Please confirm that the district is planning for all contingencies, including preparing an application for a waiver, should it be needed,” Riley wrote in the letter.

That would be difficult because the School Committee would have to prove that no one else in the department could fulfill the duties of superintendent even though several school employees hols valid superintendent licenses.

Robinson responded to Riley’s letter Tuesday afternoon in a written statement:

“I am appreciative of the communications from the Commissioner and look forward to this issue being resolved shortly. I am also supportive of the Superintendent’s focus on the work of reopening schools in less than 30 days, and the other issues involved with leading the district, even while meeting the DESE requirements for testing for an up-to-date license.”

Greg Sullivan, Pioneer Institute’s research director, said testing, mandated by an education reform law passed by the Legislature in the early 1990s, significantly improved the quality of education in Massachusetts.

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“The superintendent of Boston is responsible for administering this for the entire system,” he said. “How can this person enforce these standards on folks vying to become teachers when she didn’t take the exam herself?

“The idea that the superintendent would blow this off and the system would basically ignore it is highly problematic,” he said. “State government has a set of laws to enforce. Their tools aren’t that far reaching, but the ones that are in place are really important ones.”


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