Sometimes it takes an outsider to see through calcified groupthink.
Why does the Boston Public Schools own its fleet of buses? How many open positions does the district currently have? How many of them are teaching jobs? What is the breakdown of these vacancies by school?
Meet Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, one of the newest members of the Boston School Committee. Appointed 11 months ago by Mayor Michelle Wu, he has already emerged as an outspoken voice in a body that typically does not show a willingness to push and seriously probe the district’s decisions. In doing so, Cardet-Hernandez has been shining a fresh new light on long-standing issues in the district, which have often seemed intractable.
Crucially, Cardet-Hernandez’s approach to the job has shown that an appointed school board can actually work.
Cardet-Hernandez, who is Cuban American, moved to Boston in November 2020 after accepting the job of executive director at a Brookline private school that serves neurodiverse students. A self-described lifelong educator, he is a former special education teacher, public school principal, and education adviser to former New York City mayor Bill de Blasio.
Ross Wilson, executive director of the Shah Family Foundation, cohost of the Last Night @ School Committee podcast, and former BPS deputy superintendent, said he noticed a change in the committee when Cardet-Hernandez joined. “We often use Brandon’s questions to frame important conversations in the podcast,” Wilson said in an interview. “He brings an outside perspective from a large urban district but also as an educator and as a parent.”
While Cardet-Hernandez declined to be interviewed for this column, one only has to go to the library of School Committee meetings on YouTube to listen to his public remarks and to get a taste of his bold points of view. He has also been outspoken about his modest upbringing as a Latino kid who grew up in and out of foster care. Cardet-Hernandez, who manages to avoid speaking in education jargon, projects an intense but no-nonsense vibe.
During a meeting in September, the committee was discussing the tentative agreement reached with the Boston Teachers Union. Cardet-Hernandez repeatedly questioned the district about whether the new inclusion policies in the contract would work at the school level, expressing concern about potentially confusing families. “You’re asking folks to trust you and to trust us and to trust schools in a place that I think is fair to say it has long failed,” Cardet-Hernandez said. “I’m coming off the heels of skimming the Mission Hill report which outlines the systemic failures, centrally and on a school-based level, in our special education programming.”
To be sure, it shouldn’t be striking that a member of a governing body would … govern. But this is the controversial Boston School Committee, which has been long criticized for failing to do its basic mandate and for functioning as a form of smokescreen for the mayor to hide behind to evade taking full responsibility of the district’s performance. It’s why a movement emerged to revert back to an elected school board, a proposal from city councilors that Wu recently vetoed.
“I think Brandon makes the case for the value of an appointed School Committee member: someone with deep expertise who is new to Boston and wouldn’t have the relationships to seek elected office,” Marinell Rousmaniere, president and CEO of EdVestors, a Boston-based education nonprofit, said in an interview. (Cardet-Hernandez sits on the board of EdVestors.)
As for his bold positions, he wrote a provocative op-ed for The Hechinger Report last year arguing that schools should consider paying certain students to attend after-school programs. Cardet-Hernandez is also charismatic. In another discussion about the teachers’ contract, Cardet-Hernandez had so many questions that he ran out of time. Committee chair Jeri Robinson then gave him the go-ahead, recognizing his expertise on special education. “Your questions are helping us understand how this would work,” she told him. He then flashed his characteristic big smile and said to Robinson, provoking everyone to laugh, “I’m going to buy you flowers.”
In last week’s meeting, Cardet-Hernandez passionately questioned the district on the perpetual transportation crisis that BPS suffers from. He brought up the problematic five-year school bus contract, which is expected to go to current operator Transdev. Cardet-Hernandez asked superintendent Mary Skipper, why five years and not one? “Why isn’t it part of our strategy to look at these assets and get rid of them and lease them? I’m talking about buses.” All excellent points that pretty much went unanswered.
Instead of an elected School Committee, “maybe the public debate should be around how our school system and city leadership respond to the questions of School Committee members” or not, Wilson told me.
In that same committee meeting, Cardet-Hernandez referred to a dynamic that can very well be applied to the School Committee itself. “Sometimes I feel like when we talk about transportation it’s sort of like, ‘there’s nothing we can do, this is the system we have’ and there’s a lot of ways that we can shake it up,” Cardet-Hernandez said.
Indeed, Cardet-Hernandez is showing all the ways the system can be shocked. He is also shining a light on the committee itself, something that is rare, remarkable, and welcome.
Marcela García is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa and on Instagram @marcela_elisa.