Two local educators with strong ties to the Boston Public Schools emerged Tuesday as finalists in the search for the system’s new superintendent, setting the stage for a whirlwind of public interviews this week and a decision next week.
The finalists are Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper, who previously worked in the Boston system for nearly two decades, and Tommy Welch, a regional BPS superintendent who oversees 15 schools, in East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End. The panel overseeing the search selected the two out of a field of 34 applicants.
Both candidates have earned reputations for innovations at high schools they once led. Skipper captured national attention a decade ago when former president Barack Obama held up her school, TechBoston Academy, as a national model when he delivered a speech there. Welch was so highly regarded among parents in Los Angeles Unified School District, where he worked before coming to Boston in 2015, that they partnered with him on a new college preparatory high school.
The new superintendent will confront a big task on arrival: Mayor Michelle Wu is currently negotiating an agreement with state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to address wide-ranging problems within BPS amid concerns the state might seize control.
Moving forward with only BPS insiders is a departure from other searches over the last two decades that mostly yielded finalists from out of state with limited or no prior knowledge of the Boston school system.
And unlike the searches in 2019 and 2015, the slate doesn’t include any Black and Latino candidates, even though about three-quarters of the system’s 49,000 students identify that way. A number of parents and education advocates Tuesday raised concerns about the lack of diversity.
“There is something drastically abnormal about these results and they need to be questioned,” said Vernée Wilkinson, director of the family advisory board for SchoolFacts Boston, an education nonprofit, noting that BPS has a policy of analyzing all recommendations and decisions through a racial equity lens.
But in a statement, Wu said the search produced a “strong, diverse pool of candidates with a wide range of lived and professional experience.” Wu holds considerable sway over the decision because she appoints the School Committee, which hires the superintendent.
Pam Eddinger, co-chair of the search panel, told the School Committee Tuesday night it was “regrettable” that two of the four finalists chosen Friday withdrew “for personal reasons,” but said that “we remain confident in our process and its rigor” and in the qualifications of the two remaining contenders.
According to data presented to the School Committee, one of those finalists was Black and the other was Latino. The remaining two are Asian American and white.
Committee members Stephen Alkins and Brandon Cardet-Hernandez voiced concerns about the withdrawals and wondered whether the resulting slate was adequate.
“To me, this pool of finalists doesn’t feel linguistically, ethnically diverse enough to be presented to the School Committee,” Cardet-Hernandez said. “I fear we have forgotten that we get to make the rules. ... I am struggling as we race to a finish line we invented.”
Sharon Hinton, founder of Black Teachers Matter, asked members to prolong the search. “This is not the best we can do,” she said. “I’m concerned this rush to a decision will lead to more turnover. ... Use your voices now, slow down the search and expand the pool.”
Chairwoman Jeri Robinson urged the committee to forge ahead and “do the fair and right thing,” rather than contemplate postponement. “We need a superintendent,” she said.
News about the finalists trickled out before the city made its official announcement. Earlier in the morning, Skipper informed the Somerville community in an e-mail about being a finalist.
The development came as Skipper is negotiating a new contract with the Somerville School Committee. Her current contract is set to expire June 30, giving her the flexibility, if she is chosen to lead Boston, to start the job soon and leave the district she’s led for seven years. Skipper shared her conflicted feelings in her letter, noting she’s committed to staying in Somerville for the start of the next school year.
“I would love to continue to work here, and it would be an honor to finish my career in Somerville,” Skipper wrote in the letter. “And yet at the very same time, I still feel called to BPS — the place that raised me as an educator and professional, where I have raised my family and continue to live, to lead and support it through a very difficult time in its history and to give back what it gave to me.”
Welch, an East Boston resident, whose children attend BPS, said in a statement he looked forward to sharing his experiences and goals in the coming days.
“Experience matters as a Superintendent candidate. So does their lived experience and passion, particularly to serve our most vulnerable students including English Language Learners and students with special needs,” said Welch, who is of Japanese and Irish ancestry and grew up in California.
”I look forward to building on the foundation of successes and trust I have earned to lead the entire BPS community. I humbly enter the next step in the search process, and if fortunate enough to be chosen, I am ready to lead on day one,” Welch added.
Skipper’s public interview will be on Thursday and Welch’s is set for Friday. During the day-long interviews the candidates will rotate through three panels of community partners, students, parents, administrators, and teachers and will then interview with the School Committee in the evening.
The School Committee is expected to make a job offer on June 29, one day before outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius leaves.
Drew Echelson, Boston’s deputy superintendent of academics, will serve as acting superintendent until a new leader can start, city officials said Tuesday.
Both the School Committee and Wu expressed preference for a new superintendent with ties to Boston, with Wu saying earlier this year BPS needs a new leader “who ideally is familiar with the district, with our city, and our communities.” But she also has said the prevailing candidate didn’t have to be local.
In previous searches, advocates have criticized BPS for not having a deep bench of talent to pull a new superintendent from or for being unable to entice former administrators experiencing success elsewhere to return to Boston. They have asked whether a person with inside knowledge could do a better job of navigating BPS to implement changes than someone from the outside. The last two superintendents, both from out of state and with no experience in such a job, lasted only three years.
A local connection, however, was just one of the attributes that Wu and the School Committee were seeking, and the job description included experience in academics, operations, and closing achievement and opportunity gaps for students of different backgrounds. The job description also expressed a desire for a superintendent who would reflect the demographics and linguistic backgrounds of students.
Eugenia Corbo, an East Boston parent, said she’s “cautiously optimistic about both candidates since they’re local,” but was disappointed the finalists didn’t include a Latino. She’s more familiar with Welch, who is fluent in Spanish, since he oversees her children’s school and has helped resolve problems she’s had in the past.
The naming of the finalists caps off the shortest superintendent search in Boston in decades, and it comes as districts nationwide are grappling with a high turnover of superintendents and a shortage of qualified applicants.
The Boston search formally began one month after Cassellius in February announced her departure, which has been characterized as a mutual decision between her and Wu.
The short timeline reflects the urgency Wu faces in overhauling the school system, which has been plagued for years with systemic dysfunction, low-student achievement, chronically late school buses, deteriorating school buildings, and a scarcity of resources in schools and classrooms despite a $1.3 billion budget.
Bianca Vázquez Toness of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
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