Amid a split vote and public calls for reopening the search process, the Boston School Committee Wednesday night chose Mary Skipper to be the next superintendent of the long troubled school district.
Currently the head of Somerville Public Schools, Skipper will take over at a crucial juncture for Boston, which only days ago fended off a state takeover by agreeing to a long list of improvements that she will now be charged with seeing through. She narrowly edged out the other finalist, BPS regional superintendent Tommy Welch, in a 4-3 vote.
The 55-year-old Skipper previously worked in Boston for nearly two decades, teaching Latin at Boston Latin Academy before working her way from principal to district administrator overseeing three dozen high schools. She earned a reputation for innovations at a high school she previously led. A decade ago, then-president Barack Obama held up Skipper’s school, TechBoston Academy, as a national model when he delivered a speech there.
She’s been superintendent of the roughly 4,700-student Somerville district since 2015.
Skipper was not available for comment after the vote. But she previously has said that teachers were surrogate parents to her, playing a deep role in her life, so she felt teaching was something she needed to do.
The job she’s stepping into has already been largely redefined by an agreement finalized this week between Mayor Michelle Wu and state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, who had threatened to label the district as “underperforming.” In exchange for maintaining autonomy and the district’s reputation, Skipper will have to carry out a long list of mandates from a district improvement plan agreed upon Monday that aims to overhaul special education, services for English learners, and transportation, among other things.
“The work with the [state] is serious,” said School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson. “To get the work done we need a strong leader who has worked with [the state] and who has been a superintendent.”
Robinson, along with committee members Quoc Tran, Rafaela Polanco Garcia, and Michael O’Neill, voted for Skipper. Lorena Lopera, Stephen Alkins, and Brandon Cardet-Hernandez voted for Welch.
Skipper’s selection could carry some risk for the district, since she’s not available to take over full time in Boston until late September, after the deadline for completing 10 of 24 action steps required by the joint agreement for improving Boston’s schools.
Deputy superintendent of academics Drew Echelson will serve as acting superintendent until then.
Skipper will also have to overcome frustration from some community members that the superintendent search did not yield Black or Latino finalists. Civil rights leaders and education advocates called on district leaders to halt the vote or extend the process after the search committee presented only two finalists; Skipper is white and Welch is an Asian American.
Two other would-be finalists, a Black woman and a Latina, withdrew before the list was finalized and made public. The panel overseeing the search selected Skipper and Welch from a field of 34 applicants.
“If you do go ahead, you will put the new superintendent in a community which has shown no confidence in the selection process. That is unfair to the new superintendent, the community, and the students,” longtime BPS watchdog John Mudd told the School Committee before its vote.
School Committee members echoed the frustration, adding that the search was too rushed to make a well-informed decision.
“I would not hire someone with the information that I currently have for my own organization,” said Cardet-Hernandez, who heads a private school for students with special needs.
Ultimately, frustrated School Committee members said the vote should move forward to bring stability to the district.
In testimony to the committee Wednesday evening, members of the public were split in their support over the two finalists, with more in favor of Skipper.
“She’s a team builder and chooses a collaborative approach,” said Boston Latin Academy teacher Jose Valenzuela, who served on the search committee. “She has the demonstrated superintendent experience necessary to begin the hard work of rebuilding trust.”
Skipper supporters also emphasized her experience as a superintendent.
“There is only one candidate that has worked to negotiate one of the best contracts for teachers in Somerville, and that is Mary Skipper,” said Darlene Lombos, a BPS parent and executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council.
Welch, who oversees 15 schools in East Boston, Charlestown, and the North End, received support from parents and teachers in his region.
“We want action. We want authenticity, and we want a superintendent who will be out on the front lines working to enact the changes,” said BPS parent Jane Reilly.
Alex Oliver-Davila, executive director of Sociedad Latina, called for appointing Welch, in part because he speaks Spanish, is biracial, and is raising multiracial children, and “represents the future of this city.”
Skipper will be guided by the joint agreement finalized this week by the city and state and under pressure to move quickly. She won’t have the freedom to set her own priorities as most superintendents do when they enter the job.
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 agreed to between the state and city that dictates where to start.
The five-page state 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.
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.”