As a newly appointed search committee sets out to find Boston’s next school superintendent, city taxpayers will pay its outgoing schools chief more than $300,000 in severance, according to her package approved at a School Committee meeting Wednesday night.
Brenda Cassellius announced last month she would leave her position in June after three years on the job but before her contract ended in 2024.
The sudden departure was described by Cassellius and Mayor Michelle Wu as a “mutual agreement.”
The churn at the top of the schools department generates instability and frustrates students, parents, and staff. The search for her replacement, propelled by the new committee, will be the city’s third in eight years.
As Boston moves to find another school leader, there’s pressure to quickly find a superintendent who will stick, while keeping parents, students, and advocates involved.
Some of their frustration was evident at Wednesday’s meeting.
“If we don’t change the process [for finding a superintendent], we’re going to end up with the same problem,” Sharon Hinton, head of Black Teachers Matter, said to the School Committee Wednesday night, asking for more transparency. “I want to know why she’s leaving.... She’s getting paid with my money to leave and the job is not done.”
Mary Lee Marra, whose children graduated from Boston schools, asked the School Committee , “What’s wrong with this city?” for parting ways with another superintendent before their contract had expired.
“We’ve watched as power brokers make decisions in back rooms that leave parents out,” she said.
Boston’s School Committee seems to be following a similar playbook as past years for finding a superintendent, albeit on a compressed timeline.
It has appointed a more compact search committee than in previous years to expedite scheduling, with nine members compared to 11 in 2019. The members are Lorena Lopera, School Committee member and parent; School Committee member Michael O’Neill;Fenway High School student Marcus McNeill; Roxann Harvey, leader of Boston’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council; Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College; Jose Valenzuela, Boston Latin Academy teacher; Jessica Tang,president of the Boston Teachers Union; Gene Roundtree, secondary school superintendent; and Carline Pignato, principal of the Channing Elementary School.
Lopera, Eddinger, and McNeill will chair the search committee.
Committee members said they would hold at least one community meeting in Spanish to enable more parents to share their hopes for the next superintendent.
And some seemed sensitive to community concerns about transparency, even if there were no new agreed-upon solutions. “Community transparency has always been … a live wire, for lack of a better term,” said School Committee Member Quoc Tran, “We have to find a way to alleviate that concern.”
Creating transparency might not be completely within the School Committee’s control. While the committee has the official duties of hiring, evaluating, and firing the superintendent, the mayor appoints the School Committee and has played a large role in decisions around the superintendent.
When Tommy Chang and then-mayor Martin J. Walsh mutually agreed for Chang to leave the district in 2018, Chang received $300,000 in severance pay, along with up to a year of health insurance.
Under the separation agreement approved Wednesday by the committee , , Cassellius will receive $297,138, her annual base pay, and more than $16,000 in back pay for “contractually required minimum salary increases that she has not received over the course of the last two years.”
“It is consistent with previous separation agreements with outgoing superintendents,” School Committee Chairwoman Jeri Robinson said at the meeting.
When Cassellius was hired in 2019, she had promised to stay at least 13 years so she could hand out high school diplomas to the kindergarteners who began school that year. She struggled to form a stable leadership team, faced a no-confidence vote from the Boston Teachers Union, and allowed her temporary license to work as a superintendent in Massachusetts expire. She later took her exams and received her credentials.
While much of her tenure was dominated by the pandemic, she scored some notable, seemingly impossible wins. She changed the exam-school admissions criteria and process so a more diverse group of students can attend the vaunted schools. She also raised the graduation standards across high schools to align with state college admissions requirements.
The School Committee predicts hiring a recruiting firm in April to search for candidates and to hold public meetings for students and families this month and next.
It will be up to the new search committee to write the job description, review the applications, and narrow the candidates to a few finalists, who then will be publicly vetted.
When the School Committee voted in May 2019 to hire Cassellius, it had contracted the recruiting firm in December.
While the mayor and Robinson have said they want an “expedited search” and a decision in May or June, it appears they’re preparing for something longer. Boston plans to hire the recruiter for six months, according to the city’s request for proposals.