The next Boston superintendent will be chosen Wednesday night, but rather than a fresh start, the new leaders’ job already has been prescribed by the state.
The Boston School Committee will choose between Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper or Boston Public Schools regional superintendent Tommy Welch. Regardless of who’s chosen, a last-minute agreement between the state and city on a district improvement plan — which successfully averted a state takeover of BPS and from being labeled underperforming — already sets the scope and pace of the job. The city has committed the district and its new leader to quickly devise comprehensive plans for changing everything from how it educates special education students and English learners to making the buses run on time.
Ten out of 24 mandates in the agreement must be completed within the next six weeks, raising questions about how realistic the goals are as a new superintendent takes the helm.
“Why are there such aggressive timelines?,” asked Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia, who heads the council’s education committee. “Are we really setting up the next superintendent for success?”
Mejia and others have made the case that the new superintendent should have been consulted on the plan he or she would ultimately have to carry out. Critics say the agreement dampens the autonomy of the next leader.
For example, when outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius came to Boston in 2019 after a career mostly spent in Minnesota, she toured dozens of schools and held dozens of meetings with parents and community groups before drawing up her strategic plan.
But some veteran superintendents have said it could be helpful to step into a large district like Boston with a clear consensus on priorities for the school system and checklist dictating where to start.
The five-page plan “would help focus a new superintendent,” said former Chelsea Superintendent Mary Bourque, who now heads government relations for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “It becomes everybody’s priority when it’s spelled out this way. Otherwise, there’s no movement.”
And the document would give a new leader “cover” to make difficult changes, education watchers said, particularly to how the district serves children in special education and students learning English, which would likely affect teachers and could require renegotiating their contracts.
The state has found that Black and Latino special education students are more likely to be placed in substantially separate classrooms away from their general education peers. The plans seeks to improve the options for students who are disabled, especially ones where students can learn side-by-side with classmates without special needs and calls for the district to devise and start implementing a new so-called “inclusion” policy by Nov. 1.
Any changes to special education, along with services for English learners, would also likely cost the district more money. The increased budget requirements and potential need to collective bargain with the teachers union makes some observers question whether its possible to meet many of the deadlines set out in the plan.
“I’ve looked at the plan, and much of the work is ongoing,” Skipper said. “I’d only be able to say how realistic the (deadlines) are once I get in there and talk with the team.”
Welch didn’t comment on whether the fast timelines are achievable, but said he “welcomes” the reporting of progress to the School Committee and state required under the agreement. Welch asked the School Committee in his public job interview to hold him publicly accountable for his quarterly goals.
The short timelines prescribed in the joint agreement could influence who is chosen to lead the district, as some of the deadlines demonstrating improvement are due as early as August. Welch has said he is available to step into the job Friday after Cassellius departs. Skipper says she’s committed to work in Somerville into the fall, but would be available through the summer to conversations, planning and team-building in Boston.
She has estimated it would take about three months to fully wind down in Somerville, allowing her to be full-time in Boston by the end of September at the latest.
Deputy Superintendent of Academics Drew Echelson would serve as acting superintendent until a new leader takes over.
The eleventh-hour agreement Monday night stopped the state from following through on plans to label the district “underperforming” and step-up monitoring of the system. State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said he saw the reached plan as a sign the state was pivoting to be a “more supportive agency” rather than one devoted to “all compliance all the time.”
If Boston doesn’t follow through on the plan, however, the state could still take steps to designate the district underperforming or take control of managing the district.
At least one member of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which met Tuesday and would have to approve either of those steps, wanted the state to maintain pressure on BPS.
“To put it mildly, I’m skeptical,” said board member Michael Moriarty. “Going forward, if there’s any sense of intransigence about the vital work that needs to be done, I implore you, Commissioner Riley, drop the other shoe and recommend receivership. For the sake of children and families, I hope my skepticism is unfounded.”
Globe reporter Jenna Russell contributed to this story.
The Great Divide is an investigative team that explores educational inequality in Boston and statewide. Sign up to receive our newsletter, and send ideas and tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Adria Watson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.