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Boston schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will step down at the end of the school year, following a turbulent tenure marked by major disruptions in learning caused by the pandemic as well as a number of controversies, city and school leaders announced on Monday.
In a joint statement, Cassellius, Mayor Michelle Wu, and School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson side stepped the circumstances around Cassellius’s departure, but Wu called it a “mutual decision” in her own letter she issued to the Boston community.
“We have come to this decision after careful deliberation, with mutual respect for all involved and an acknowledgment that there is much work still to be done this school year and beyond,” Wu wrote. “I am so grateful for the Superintendent’s leadership, especially while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and for her courage in addressing needed structural changes within our district.”
But Cassellius suggested in an interview the decision was not hers.
“I knew when I took the job that I was a political appointee,” Cassellius said. “Everyone should be able to pick their own team. ... and Mayor Wu should be able to pick her own team.”
The School Committee, which is appointed by the mayor and has the power to hire and fire a superintendent, had attempted to provide Cassellius with some protection last June as the city prepared to elect a new mayor by extending her contract to June 2024. It was originally set to expire this coming June and now that extension might cost Boston taxpayers a hefty severance package.
Her impending exit cuts short a goal Cassellius set for herself when she started in July 2019: She wanted to give students starting kindergarten that fall their high school diplomas in 13 years. Now, she will say goodbye to them as they leave second grade.
Cassellius, who previously served as an education commissioner for nearly a decade in Minnesota, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to lead the school system.
“Working alongside so many people — parents, educators, community and faith leaders, and philanthropic partners — all dedicated to helping our children achieve their dreams has given new meaning to my vision of all hands on deck,” Cassellius said in a statement. “Together, we’ve laid a stronger foundation upon which BPS can continue to build. I love Boston and I’ve loved this job.”
Cassellius’ departure will add further instability to the Boston Public Schools, which has had two permanent and two interim superintendents in eight years. Wu has been sensitive to that as she has weighed Cassellius’ future.
Wu told the Globe in October “we need stability in our system,” but she also added, “I’m looking forward to having the tough conversations about how we ensure accountability for progress.”
Robinson said “our goal would be to have someone in place by the beginning of the school year.” Ideally, a permanent leader, she said. Robinson also praised Cassellius’ tenure in a statement, saying, “She set an example for those of us who share her dreams that all BPS students have equitable opportunities to achieve success in school and in life.”
Cassellius’ tenure has been beset by wide-ranging problems. She has struggled with putting together her leadership team, announcing her latest leadership reshuffle last week. She confronted an uprising among principals over her high school overhaul plans and weathered a vote of no confidence by the teachers union and criticism from many parents over delays in reopening classrooms and late school buses.
In one embarrassing moment last summer, Cassellius allowed her temporary license to work as a superintendent in Massachusetts to expire and she had never taken the state certification exams to receive a full-fledged superintendent’s license. She later took the exams and got her license.
A scathing state audit in 2020 also ushered in greater state oversight.
But Cassellius secured major victories, including raising graduation standards to align with state university admission requirements and overhauling exam-school admission criteria so a more diverse group gets in.
In some ways, Cassellius’ departure is somewhat reminiscent of her predecessor, Tommy Chang, who abruptly left in June 2018 after a tough conversation with then-mayor Martin J. Walsh who indicated he wanted to move in another direction without consulting the School Committee. Chang got a $300,000 payout.
According to Cassellius’ contract, she might be entitled to a year’s salary, which the most recent city payroll records list as $280,000 — if her departure is considered a move by the School Committee to prematurely end her contract. However, she would not receive severance beyond compensation for unused vacation days if she resigns on her own.
A school spokesperson said details are being finalized.
City Councilor Julia Mejia, who chairs the panel’s education committee, said she is concerned Cassellius’ departure will create more instability.
“I’m surprised by this turn of events,” she said. “Any time there’s a new superintendent, there’s a new vision, it just makes it harder for the work to really move forward.”
Finding a new superintendent amid the pandemic could prove tricky. Many talented superintendents are exhausted by the global health crisis with some resigning, adding further strain on a shortage of superintendents that have challenged districts nationwide in recent years.
Other factors unique to Boston could also create complications for a search. Boston is in the midst of exploring whether to go back to an elected School Committee, which means any superintendent hired now could end up working for a radically different board.
Meanwhile, the state’s close monitoring of the school system has raised questions about a state takeover. Wu, who met with state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley last week at City Hall, said in an interview Monday she told him receivership was not an option. She said Cassellius’ future wasn’t discussed.
In a statement Monday, Riley was positive about Cassellius’ tenure.
“Dr. Cassellius has worked hard in a district that faced multiple challenges even before the pandemic struck,” Riley said. “She led the district to set a timeline for making MassCore a graduation requirement for all students, worked toward building a more diverse teacher workforce, and expanded students’ access to opportunities in the arts and sports.”
Boston will compete with other large cities hiring superintendents, said Mike Magee, chief executive of Chiefs for Change, a Washington, D.C.-based education leadership organization.
Instability on the School Committee could be a deterrent, he said.
“The biggest concern that good leaders have right now about leading systems is that they’re going to arrive and not going to be properly supported and the politics will be unwieldy,” Magee said. “And for reasons that have nothing to do with their leadership, they’ll have to leave in a couple years.”
Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, voiced appreciation for Cassellius’ focus on equity, social-emotional wellness, and school building upgrades.
“Her leadership will leave a long-standing and positive impact on our schools and communities,” she said in a statement.
Dorion Levy, a sophomore at Boston Community Leadership Academy, said Cassellius consistently listened to students.
“She was always trying to prepare us for a better future, and she always made sure we were heard,” said Levy.
Dasan Harrington, father of a fifth-grader at the Russell Elementary School in Dorchester, questioned what the future holds if BPS can’t keep a leader.
“Superintendents tend to get chewed up and spit out,” he said. “It becomes like nobody is minding the store. And it’s the kids who suffer.”
Emma Platoff, Naomi Martin, and Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.