Discontent is swirling around the Boston Public Schools superintendent search over the lack of Black and Latino finalists, sparking questions about the legitimacy of the process and calls to restart the search.
A hallmark of past superintendent searches has been the racial diversity of those who make it to the final round. Of the seven finalists named in the 2015 and 2019 searches combined, Black and Latino candidates represented six spots while an Asian-American held the other, according to a Globe review.
Black and Latino candidates also made up the majority of finalists in 2006. The job initially went to Manuel J. Rivera before he backed out; a subsequent search in 2007 resulted in Carol R. Johnson, who is Black, as the only public contender for the job.
Yet this time around, the two finalists are white and Asian American. Two other would-be finalists, a Black woman and a Latina, withdrew before the list was finalized and made public, generating confusion and disappointment.
“Why weren’t they able to replace them with other Black or Latino candidates?” said Bobby Jenkins, head of the Madison Park alumni association, who wondered whether the panel overseeing the fast-paced search didn’t have a deep enough bench.
The debate is unfolding as public interviews for the superintendent’s job began Thursday with Somerville Superintendent and former BPS administrator Mary SkipperThe second finalist, Tommy Welch, an assistant superintendent in Boston and a BPS parent. interviewed Friday. The School Committee is expected to select a new leader next Wednesday.
The turn of events has some education advocates questioning Mayor Michelle Wu’s commitment to racial diversity in the superintendent search process for a district where about three-quarters of the 49,000 students are Black or Latino.
The search committee has released little information on the nearly three dozen applicants and provided demographic breakdowns only for the finalists and eight semifinalists, who were evenly divided across four demographic groups: Asian, Black, Latino, and white.
Wu, who has hired a diverse group of City Hall leaders, emphasized in an interview she is committed to ensuring the top BPS officials and educators reflect the diversity of students and families, and noted the initial slate of superintendent finalists — before the withdrawals — accomplished that.
The slate was chosen by a racially diverse nine-person search panel that was assembled by Wu and the School Committee, which Wu also appoints. The majority of the School Committee’s seven members are Black, Latino, or Asian American.
“We have a very strong slate of candidates who reflect the strong desire and need of school communities to have someone hit the ground running who knows our city, our district, and our communities,” Wu said. “We would not get more committed candidates by starting over or extending at this point in the process.”
Unease, however, exists on the School Committee. Two School Committee members, Brandon Cardet-Hernandez and Stephen Alkins, raised concerns Tuesday night about the absence of Black and Latino finalists and pondered whether the process needed more time. Chair Jeri Robinson refused to consider it, noting it would be disrespectful to the remaining finalists.
“Saying to them, ‘No thanks, we’ll move on’ ... would certainly put a black mark against our names,” Robinson said. “I would like us to do the right and fair thing at the moment, and continue with interviews.”
Officials have said “personal reasons” prompted the would-be finalists to pull out.
The superintendent search has confronted several recruiting challenges. Chief among them: The city is trying to stave off a potential state takeover of BPS and the City Council is drafting legislation to let voters elect the School Committee, both of which could prematurely end a superintendent’s tenure if the new governing structure wants a change.
More broadly, a high turnover of superintendents nationwide, spurred by the pandemic and political unrest, is exacerbating a preexisting shortage of qualified candidates. Some superintendent candidates also are reluctant to move forward in Massachusetts because state law requires finalists to be publicly named, which could jeopardize their current jobs if they were not ultimately chosen.
Those marketplace constraints were further compounded in Boston where speculation had been swirling for weeks about a potential front-runner, which many observers feared may have dampened candidate interest.
That rumored front-runner was Skipper, whose contract with Somerville expires next week. A new deal hasn’t been reached yet, an unusual situation at a time when districts prefer to lock their superintendents in months in advance because of the nationwide shortage. Andre Green, chair of the Somerville School Committee, expressed a reluctant willingness this week to let Skipper go.
“While I won’t deny my hope is that she decides her mission is to continue to build on and advance what she started in Somerville, I also understand and support her if she decides that her next mission lies back in BPS,” Green said in a statement.
Wu denied there was an early favorite, saying, “There have been no guarantees to anyone throughout any stage of the process.”
This isn’t the first time Boston has encountered difficulty recruiting a diverse slate of candidates. Former mayor Martin J. Walsh, shortly after entering office in 2014, set an aggressive timeline to get a new superintendent in place by the start of the next school year. But in May, the search panel put the process on hold until the fall, disappointed with the low turnout in applications and lack of diversity.
The search at that point had yielded only 26 applicants and just five of them were known to be people of color. The search later resumed and ultimately resulted in a slate of four finalists that included two Latinos, an African American, and an Asian American in February 2015.
Concern over whether Boston would attract a highly qualified diverse group of candidates has surrounded the current search since it formally began in March, with a lightning fast goal of having a new leader chosen before outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius departs on June 30.
“It is incredibly disappointing that the pool of finalists does not reflect the rich diversity of our district,” said Mary Tamer, the Massachusetts director for Democrats for Education Reform and a member of the 2006 superintendent search panel. “I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible had this search process been given more time to run a proper course of action.”
Johnson, the former superintendent, said it can take time to win over candidates, especially if they’re happy where they are. She said she got a call from former mayor Thomas M. Menino and conversations with him, the School Committee, and the search panel lasted about six months. Two School Committee members even visited her in Memphis, the district she was leading, so they could see her work.
“First of all, Mayor Menino was very persuasive,” said Johnson, adding that she knew Boston’s recently retired superintendent at the time and the success he had. “I do think it’s a great city for anyone to work in.”
City Councilor Julia Mejia, who chairs the council’s Education Committee, said the lack of Black and Hispanic finalists represents a lost opportunity for all students to thrive.
“Identifying with our diverse communities should have been a basic requirement,” she said in a statement.
Several education advocates and parents have suggested restarting the search.
“Education advocates that I’ve spoken with ... are concerned about the process and wondering if it would be better for the students and families of BPS if the mayor were to leave the interim in place and revisit the search,” said Lisa Green, chair of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee and a BPS parent.
Green noted that the last two superintendent searches have resulted in short-term superintendents. “Given that, and the uncertainty created by [the state’s] threat of receivership, BPS doesn’t seem to be in a position to field the best possible candidate pool right now,” she said.
Wu said concerns over state receivership and leading a district through a pandemic weighed heavily on potential candidates.
”The tone and tenor of the state has not been productive,” she said. “Multiple candidates who I spoke to did bring up the situation around the looming threat of receivership.”
But she emphasized Boston can’t put off hiring a superintendent.
“We are in a dire moment for Boston Public Schools,” she said, “and we have a great pool of candidates for superintendent who are ready to go and excited about this opportunity.”
Jenna Russell of the Globe staff contributed to this report.