For the city of Boston, it’s an unexpected jolt. For its new mayor, it’s yet another challenge — and yet another opportunity.
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will depart from her post in June, school and city officials announced Monday, leaving the city mere months to find a leader prepared to take control of a struggling school system still grappling with a pandemic that has upended two years of education.
The opening gives Mayor Michelle Wu and the Boston School Committee the chance to select a new superintendent whose vision aligns closely with theirs. But it also means fresh instability atop a district already in tumult.
The decision comes “at a time of extreme stress on the school system. You can’t overstate the challenges of COVID and these staff shortages right now, and the degree of disruption,” said Paul Reville, a professor of education at Harvard and former Massachusetts secretary of education. “There will be a lot of pressure to make an appointment who can really hit the ground running.”
And the turnover comes as Wu hunts for a new commissioner of the Boston Police Department, leaving her administration to hire two of the city’s most important leaders — whose decisions can help lift or sink a mayor’s tenure — simultaneously.
Wu’s team will “certainly have their hands full” with the two openings, but “the opportunity it presents to appoint your own team outweighs the challenge,” said David Sweeney, who served as chief of staff to former mayor Martin J. Walsh and witnessed two superintendent searches during his time at City Hall.
“Those appointees govern the most public-facing departments within the city, and two of the largest departments in the city,” Sweeney said. The timing is “fortuitous,” he said: “It’s essential that those departments be led by individuals who are aligned with the mayor’s vision.”
The superintendent search marks an urgent moment, both in the life of the school system and in the course of Wu’s young administration.
Even before COVID-19 devastated the country’s education system, Boston public schools faced major challenges. In 2020, the state issued a scathing review of the system, reporting that about one-third of the district’s students attend schools ranked in the bottom 10 percent of the state. The risk of a state takeover looms.
“How do you eat an elephant? It’s one piece at a time,” said City Councilor Julia Mejia, who chairs the panel’s education committee. Finding a new leader for the city’s school system will be a challenge, she said, but “I don’t think it’s more than we can chew.”
“This poses an opportunity to reset and be super intentional about what the qualifications look like,” Mejia said.
The decision will not fall to Wu alone. Formally, the responsibility of selecting a new superintendent belongs to the School Committee. But the mayor is expected to carry considerable influence with the appointed body. (When former superintendent Tommy Chang abruptly left the role in 2018 after a tough discussion with Walsh, the School Committee found out about the departure after the decision was made.)
In an interview on Monday, Boston School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson outlined an “expedited process” for the search, saying the city’s goal is to not appoint an interim, and to put a permanent leader in place for the beginning of the next school year.
Asked whether the timing would prove to be difficult, Wu expressed confidence in “engaged and passionate community members and activists and residents always ready to be involved.” Meanwhile, the search for a police commissioner is “going very smoothly,” she said.
Wu, who is the first Boston Public Schools mother elected mayor of the city, said in a letter Monday that her priorities for the school system include “expanding access to early childhood education, reimagining BPS facilities to advance learning, and ensuring excellence across the district, including in all our high schools.”
The city has not yet detailed precisely how the search will be conducted. But if Boston’s hunt for a new police commissioner is any guide, it will involve significant community feedback.
“I know our School Committee and our school communities will have plenty of helping hands to make sure that this search process goes smoothly and is reflective of community input and interests and vision as well,” Wu said in an interview on Monday.
The challenge for city leaders will be seeking and incorporating that input while also moving quickly.
Superintendent searches in major cities can take as long as a year, but Boston “really can’t afford a lengthy search process at this point,” said Reville.
It’s a tall order for a new administration already knee-deep in a search for a new police commissioner, who will take over a scandal-plagued department at a moment of reckoning for law enforcement across the country.
“Those are two high-profile, very important positions that are major factors in her administration,” said Samuel R. Tyler, former president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau.
Whoever the city selects will face a host of difficulties. Boston’s public schools have had four superintendents since 2015, a challenging level of turnover for a district that already faced plenty of obstacles. Wu herself has acknowledged the toll of that tumult.
“Constant turnover of BPS leadership has been incredibly destabilizing,” she tweeted in June, while running for mayor, “so we need to get to a strong & lasting partnership ASAP.”