As she approaches the end of her first year at the helm of Boston Public Schools, Superintendent Mary Skipper earned largely positive reviews from the School Committee, who lauded her performance at a time when the district faces challenges on multiple fronts.
Committee members mostly made allowances for the timing of Skipper’s arrival — after both hiring and budget season last year, her ability to make major changes was somewhat limited — and praised particular steps, including the settling of more than a dozen outstanding labor contracts. They also credited her with “taking the steps to understand in depth the challenges faced by the district,” according to the summative assessment compiled by members Stephen Alkins and Michael O’Neill, which was presented publicly Wednesday night.
But it was clear the committee has questions about how various plans and investments are playing out on the ground. Members called for more measurable outcomes and for detailed plans, particularly for a proposed facilities overhaul and for the rollout of inclusive classrooms where students with disabilities learn alongside general education students. After Skipper presented her self-evaluation last month, members made similar calls for detail on both plans and outcomes. The committee also called for a focus on equity.
On average, the board rated Skipper’s work as “effective,” the second highest of five possible ratings, in four key areas for which she was evaluated — instructional leadership, management and operations, family and community engagement, and professional culture. But there was significant variation among the members. In both management and engagement, member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez gave Skipper the second-lowest rating, “minimally effective,” while member Quoc Tran rated Skipper as “highly effective” in every area but engagement.
In her self-evaluation, Skipper said she was effective in all four areas. She presented a long list of areas where she said the district has made progress, such as improved instruction for multilingual learners, school bus transportation, and collaboration among departments.
The committee will vote at their next meeting on a final performance rating. Skipper must earn a rating of at least “developing,” the middle rating, to be eligible for a 2.5 percent annual raise to her $300,000 salary. The committee must also work with Skipper to set goals for the coming school year; in her self-evaluation, Skipper said she needed to improve community engagement and relationships.
Skipper, who spent her early career in Boston, returned to the district from Somerville at a critical juncture last September, with BPS navigating an agreement negotiated under a threat of a takeover by the state, which in a report last spring described the district’s “entrenched dysfunction” and “systemic disarray” in withering detail; as less than one-third of elementary and middle school students are proficient in reading and math; and as enrollment hemorrhages.
Skipper became the district’s sixth superintendent in just a decade. To meet the state’s demands, she had just three years to complete a major overhaul of school safety, transportation, special education, English language instruction, data collection, facilities planning, and low-performing schools. While the district has completed multiple tasks, major milestones remain, including a comprehensive facilities plan.
In the overall evaluation, the committee said Skipper had put the “key building blocks” in place to address the district’s challenges, but that it remained to be seen whether those building blocks would shift specific student outcomes. On special education, for example, the district settled a teacher’s contract that they said would help pave the way to inclusive classrooms, but districtwide planning remains vague; in her back-to-school presentation Wednesday, Skipper said every school will launch an Inclusion Planning Team this fall and begin rollout the following school year.
A couple of members were more directly critical. Cardet-Hernandez wrote that the district is “struggling” in community engagement and had an “incredibly difficult to stomach” staffing crisis last year and pointed out multiple occasions where staff came before the committee because they were not getting paid. Alkins wrote that while many district students are doing well, he would have rated the superintendent “minimally effective” on instructional leadership if he were looking solely at “our most vulnerable populations in BPS and their academic outcomes.”
Tran, on the other hand, found that Skipper was “highly effective” in every area but community engagement, and even in that area, he wrote, “All of her ongoing endeavors ... should warrant a Highly Effective rating, absent the frequent public outcry and demand for transparency and/or equity voiced at School Committee’s Public Hearings.”
Skipper’s worst reviews on average were on community engagement, which appeared to be echoed by residents during public comment Wednesday.
“Superintendent Skipper’s evaluation process does not incorporate the voices and feedback of those most directly impacted by her poor leadership, which is BPS parents, students, and educators,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “School communities continue to testify and organize around the many broken promises of communication, community engagement, rash building decisions, staff not getting paid, persistent transportation disasters, and a budget process that was embarrassingly uninformed.”
Wednesday’s meeting began with a closed session to discuss a review by attorney Natasha Tidwell into potential racial bias in the district’s investigation and disciplinary process of senior administrators. Tidwell’s report, which led off the public portion of the meeting, was triggered by an internal complaint made last fall about the number of senior administrators of color — mainly Black men and women — who were placed on paid administrative leave during the 2021-22 school year while being investigated for misconduct.
Tidwell’s report reviewed three years of district disciplinary data, starting in 2019, during which time BPS investigated 37 central office managers or school leaders. Of those 37 employees, 15 were placed on paid administrative leave — including seven white employees and eight employees of color — for various allegations of misconduct, such as failure to follow protocols or concerns about fitness for duty. The remaining 22 — half of whom were people of color — were investigated but not placed on paid leave. During the time of Tidwell’s review, all but two of the 37 investigations were completed, and 27 of them led to disciplinary actions ranging from remedial training to termination.
“Ultimately, based on the relatively small number of employees investigated...we were unable to draw a reliable conclusion as to whether and to what extent race factored into the paid administrative leave determinations or the disciplinary outcomes,” Tidwell said.
She concluded that BPS uses informal and unwritten criteria for making paid administrative leave determinations and recommended the district implement and publish the criteria on which it relies for those decisions. Additionally, she said the district should create mechanisms for tracking and auditing disciplinary data in order to identify trends in real time.
Skipper announced at a School Committee meeting last fall that the district had retained Tidwell to investigate concerns about the treatment of administrators of color that were raised in a letter by a group of retired administrators. But in April, the attorney met with the informal head of the group, Albert Holland, and told him that she was actually investigating a separate complaint that coincidentally had some overlap with their concerns, Holland told the Globe last week.
Tidwell said Wednesday that she had learned of an external complaint by community members, including former BPS leaders of color, in the fall of 2022, and that it was broader than the internal complaint that led to the retention of her firm’s services, and covered the use of “investigatory meetings,” informal proceedings to provide employees with the opportunity to respond to allegations of infractions.
Skipper said she would take seriously Tidwell’s recommendations of developing clear, written criteria for paid administrative leave and improving disciplinary data collection. In response to the additional concerns raised by the group of retired administrators, Skipper said the district will also take steps, including to improve the tracking of investigatory meetings.