It’s remarkable that anyone has applied to become Boston’s next schools chief, given the challenges the new superintendent will face.
Never mind the compressed and tricky timing of this search: The job was posted last month, and city officials are hoping to hire the new schools chief by the end of June — a breakneck pace, and bad timing for some potentially great candidates, already committed to their current districts for fall.
And the threat of state receivership means whoever comes into the job might have to yield a giant chunk of autonomy as they labor to fix the system’s persistent shortcomings. A scathing report that revealed the Mission Hill school failed to act for years on allegations of sexual abuse and bullying by students, and failed special ed students revealed a system in which other nasty surprises could lurk.
So the fact that 31 people have applied for the job seems kind of miraculous. Over the next few weeks, as the finalists are chosen, we’ll learn plenty about the qualifications and ambitions of these brave souls. But in Boston, what matters as much as who the superintendent is, is who the mayor is.
Without a courageous mayor willing to stand behind her schools chief, to defer to that expert’s judgment and spend political capital backing them when they make tough decisions, even a stellar superintendent is doomed to fail — or to leave the job before they can make meaningful change.
Lord knows, he had his faults, but the late Tom Menino was very good at this. Having staked his reputation on improving the schools, the notorious micromanager might have made his superintendents’ lives miserable. He didn’t. And Menino kept each of his two superintendents for a long time — Thomas Payzant stayed in the job for over 11 years, Carol Johnson for six — unlike those who succeeded them under other mayors.
“Working with and learning from Mayor Menino was just a tremendous gift and a blessing,” said Johnson, superintendent from 2007 to 2013.
She was one of six Boston superintendents to speak to the Shah Family Foundation for a new podcast called “Last Night at School Committee: The Search for a New Boston Superintendent.”
Johnson told interviewers Jill Shah and Ross Wilson that Menino put his full cabinet at her disposal, and made sure they knew her needs were a priority. And he stood behind her when the going got tough.
“The mayor was going to step up and he was going to own the problem,” she said. “I never had to own it solely by myself.”
Compare that to the difficult relationship between Menino’s successor, former Mayor Marty Walsh, and Tommy Chang, who was superintendent between 2015 and 2018. Walsh appointed Chang after a two-year search, but it soon became clear the mayor didn’t trust him, disagreeing and expressing his displeasure publicly. When Chang tried to change school start times — in part to redress an imbalance that gave the choice start time of 8:30 to 80 percent of the system’s white students, parents erupted in protest. Walsh initially backed him, saying “There are certain things you can’t crumble on.” But Walsh eventually crumbled. And Chang backed down too.
Are these lessons Boston’s new mayor, Michelle Wu, has learned from?
“The next superintendent is just going to have to be really ready for the different political winds that might come in the mayor’s office,” Brenda Cassellius told Shah and Wilson. The outgoing superintendent is leaving the job after three years because Wu wants her own person in the job.
Students pay a high cost for instability at the top, so the system desperately needs the next superintendent to hang in long enough to get the needed work done. Whether that happens depends not just on who gets the job, but also, critically, on Wu. She must choose somebody whose judgment she trusts, and whose expertise she is willing to defer to. And she must stand behind that person, even when it’s uncomfortable.
At this point, we should be asking not just whether one of those 31 applicants has what it takes to fix Boston’s schools, but whether the mayor has it, too.