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As Boston prepares for its third superintendent search in eight years, parents, advocates, and educators point to what they see as a troubling pattern.
When Brenda Cassellius leaves her superintendent job in June, the city’s last two permanent superintendents will have stayed on the job only three years. That relentless churn undercuts progress and morale — and the national image of a city once known for stable school leadership.
On top of all that, imagine what it must look like to the children: Most seventh-graders will likely see their fifth superintendent this fall.
“It’s disheartening,” said Dorchester mother Vanesa Morales, who pulled her 11-year-old son out of Boston’s school system two years ago to attend school in Wellesley through the Metco program. “It’s not fair to the students — all of the changes and transitions.”
No surprise, there is a lot of finger pointing over how and why Boston is solidifying a reputation for burning through superintendents. Theories range from the city’s inscrutable and hidebound political landscape to outsized mayoral control over education policy to the lack of experience of recent superintendents. (Neither Cassellius nor her predecessor Tommy Chang had previously run a large urban system.)
“No other city in the Commonwealth presents that mixture of voices and powerful constituencies — some of them official, most of them unofficial — that will determine what kind of day [a superintendent] will have and whether or not you will be able to execute your agenda,” said Samuel Acevedo, executive director of the Boston Higher Education Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps first generation youth of color thrive in college, and a member of the last two superintendent search committees. “It’s a recipe for constant failure.”
Cassellius and Chang stayed on the job about half as long as superintendents nationally, according to a 2018 report on superintendent longevity by the Broad Center, when it operated as a nonprofit in Los Angeles. It found that, in the last 15 years, superintendents in the 100 largest school districts left their jobs after an average of about six years.
Boston’s switch to an appointed committee in 1992 was supposed to provide leadership stability — and initially it did. During Thomas M. Menino’s 20-year tenure as mayor, his appointed School Committee hired two superintendents: Thomas Payzant who served 11 years and Carol Johnson who served six years.
Both were rich in experience, and both, critically, had the full and patient support of the mayor. Payzant had been a former assistant secretary at the US Department of Education and previously worked as a superintendent in several districts, including Oklahoma City and San Diego. Johnson had been a superintendent in Memphis and Minneapolis.
“Mayor Menino allowed me to be superintendent,” Johnson said. “He would give his opinion on ideas and I would give my opinions. But I didn’t feel pressure to do something. ... And he would say numerous times, ‘I’m not an educator, you will have to tell me from an educational perspective what’s in the best interest of students.’”
And she said he would fight for the resources the schools needed because he had a sense of ownership in the system’s success.
Menino famously challenged Boston residents in 1996 during a state of the city speech “to judge me harshly” if the schools didn’t improve. Voters were heading to the polls to decide whether to go back to an elected school committee, and in the end they rejected the idea and decided to give Menino a chance to fix the school system.
Last fall, however, voters overwhelmingly approved a nonbinding referendum calling for a return to an elected school committee and the City Council is drafting a proposal in response. Lisa Green, chair of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, said the shift is needed because Boston mayors through the years have exerted too much control over BPS.
“There have been numerous instances of superintendents acting on their publicly stated agendas, only to be later derailed by mayors swooping in when it conflicted with their political interests,” Green said.
Many education advocates and parents say Walsh took personal control over the school system to another level and at times appeared to undermine his superintendents and his appointed School Committee.
“It’s all smoke and mirrors and puppetry,” said a former Boston Public Schools central office administrator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of professional harm. “It would be better if they just call it what it is. Be explicit. It’s a mayor-controlled school system.”
One of Walsh’s first actions was creating a “chief of education,” a Cabinet-level position based at City Hall that many BPS supporters viewed as an attempt to take power away from the superintendent. The education chief oversaw some high-level academic initiatives, including expanding pre-K and redesigning high schools.
City Hall also had a heavy hand in developing BuildBPS, a $1 billion long-term plan spurred by a pledge the mayor made on the campaign trail to renovate and replace schools. The plan stoked fears that the mayor was quietly planning to close some schools — as the district grapples with steep enrollment declines — but which he denied.
And there were several instances in which Walsh publicly criticized Chang. Walsh, for instance, shot down Chang’s attempt to change the admission requirements at the exam schools after he learned in a 2016 news story that BPS had assembled an advisory committee to examine the issue, saying, “I don’t think it’s the right time to be talking about it.” The committee never met again.
Public criticism of Walsh ensued again in 2017 after he blamed Chang for not telling him about concerns the IRS raised about the management of student activity funds, even though those concerns were part of a citywide IRS audit being handled by City Hall.
“Tommy Chang was not a structure and operations guy,” said former School Committee member Miren Uriarte. “We hired him because he was a strong instructional leader and then he was asked to do BuildBPS. ... We do set up people for failure.”
During Cassellius’ tenure, Walsh played a large role in union negotiations and decisions about how and when to reopen schools in the fall of 2020.
“He basically took over the [reopening] process,” said the former central office administrator.
But long before then, there were signs that Cassellius would struggle to assert her authority. According to former School Committee member Hardin Coleman, Cassellius was told she could not hire a large team of people from outside Boston to support her in the central office. The executive team had just been overhauled by the interim superintendent, Laura Perille.
“She couldn’t bring in her own people,” said Coleman. “That’s why she hasn’t been able to build a team. ... She’s had a hard time finding good people.”
Cassellius also had other challenges. She worked for three different mayors and three different School Committee chairs in a span of two and a half years, while guiding the school district through a historic pandemic and an era of racial reckoning.
She also achieved victories along the way, including raising high school graduation requirements and overhauling exam school admission criteria.
In a letter to the community this month announcing her departure, Cassellius offered a generous gloss on her tumultuous tenure. She wrote that she was “blessed to have worked alongside three dedicated mayors who have served as thought partners, mentors and friends.”
Some problems that complicate life for superintendents, though, extend beyond the politics. The district under many superintendents has struggled with basic operations, such as getting buses to run on time, and providing students with disabilities and those learning English the services they need to be successful.
And the threat of state receivership looms over the district.
Last year, former School Committee member Ernani DeAraujo recommended restructuring the superintendent’s job if operational improvements weren’t achieved. The city should hire “a city manager to run the operational aspects of BPS and the Superintendent will serve under the manager as the strategic vision officer, which directly suits her greatest strengths,” he wrote in Cassellius’ performance evaluation.
Some blame Cassellius’ performance and short tenure on the city’s failure to follow its own stated requirements for the job. When Cassellius was hired in 2019, the minimum qualifications included at least five years as a superintendent. Cassellius spent less than a year leading a district with two schools, but eight years as Minnesota’s education commissioner.
Boston will search for a superintendent during a time of great upheaval in public schools across the country. Many superintendents are retiring, burned out by the pandemic, staffing shortages, and the political fights in their communities. Roughly a quarter of large cities are looking for new superintendents.
Next month, the School Committee will name a “small and focused” search committee to lead the process to find the next superintendent.
What remains unclear is what influence Mayor Michelle Wu will exert on that search, and what kind of relationship she will have with the chosen candidate.
City Councilor Julia Mejia, who heads the council’s education committee, said Wu needs to make a written commitment to the next superintendent, promising to do whatever it takes to support his or her district improvement efforts and leadership.
“It’s a revolving door,” said Mejia. ”How can we move the work forward if we’re in constant re-set mode?”