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Tommy Chang selected as new Boston school chief

Educator made mark in Calif.; says Boston can become a model

Tommy Chang is known for a quick mind.
Tommy Chang is known for a quick mind.(JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF)

The Boston School Committee selected Los Angeles administrator Tommy Chang as the city’s next superintendent Tuesday, bringing to an end a nearly 18-month search.

Chang, 39, has been working for the last three years with more than 130 low-achieving schools as an instructional superintendent in the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Intensive Support and Innovation Center.

With his experience in the country’s second-largest school district, Chang has gained a reputation for a quick mind, collaborative approach, and a strong conviction that schools should have the flexibility to experiment.

“I think he is a quiet visionary,” committee chairman Michael O’Neill said in endorsing Chang.

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Chang said he was honored to be selected and look forward to running the system.

“Boston matters,” he said in a statement. “As the birthplace of public education in America, it needs to serve as the model for what public education can be, not only in the United States but the world.’’

Chang added that he shared Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s desire “to spur innovation and support innovation in every neighborhood. . . . I believe the innovation starts with schools, and I ask all Bostonians to partner up with schools to create beacons of academics, culture, and innovation in every neighborhood.”

Chang will face a number of challenges in Boston: wide gaps of achievement among students of different backgrounds, dozens of low-achieving schools, deteriorating facilities, and operating costs that have been rising faster than revenues. Last week, school officials recommended closing five city schools.

The 5-to-2 vote for Chang came several hours after Walsh threw his support behind Chang, who was one of four finalists for the post. Dana Bedden, superintendent of schools in Richmond, pulled out of the running just before the meeting.

The other finalists were Guadalupe Guerrero, deputy superintendent for instruction, innovation and social justice for the San Francisco Unified School District; and Pedro Martinez, a superintendent in residence for Nevada.

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“Dr. Chang will provide the leadership that our school system needs, and I am confident that his innovative views on education will move our students forward,” Walsh said after the vote. “We need a transformative leader, and that is Tommy Chang.”

In Tuesday’s vote, Regina Robinson and Miren Uriarte voted for Martinez. Both raised questions about whether Chang had enough experience to oversee an entire school system, including operations. “My concern is he has not been the boss,” Uriarte said.

Highlights of Chang’s resume include six years as principal at the Green Dot Public Schools, a charter system in Venice, Calif., and six years as a biology teacher at Compton High School, a low-achieving school in Los Angeles County with significant poverty.

Chang, who is believed to be the first Asian to head Boston’s schools, is expected to start by July 1, replacing John McDonough, the interim superintendent who has been overseeing the district since Carol R. Johnson retired in August 2013. McDonough received a standing ovation at the meeting.

One of the next steps is for the city to negotiate a compensation package with Chang. Johnson’s annual salary was about $267,000.

The selection of Chang disappointed some key constituencies. The Greater Boston Latino Network — composed of 11 organizations — had been pushing for Martinez.

“We are deeply disappointed that an opportunity was missed to bring a strong Latino leader to Boston,’’ the network said in a statement Tuesday night. “Latinos make up 40 percent of the BPS student body and more than 17 percent of our total population, yet only 7 percent of city leadership positions are held by Latinos.’’

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Many parents, students, and teachers preferred Bedden. But O’Neill, the committee chairman, announced at the meeting that Bedden had sent him an e-mail after 5 p.m. pulling out of the running. He said Bedden indicated that the overwhelming support he received in Richmond prompted him to withdraw.

Each of the other candidates had encountered obstacles. Martinez, outspoken and charismatic, had a messy split with the Washoe County School District last year, resulting in a $700,000 legal settlement in his favor. He had been on the job for just two years, his only time as a superintendent.

Bedden, who has moved around a lot, has been at his post in Virginia for just 14 months, raising questions about whether he would stay in Boston for the long haul or leave if a better job came along. Bedden had insisted he would be committed to Boston.

Guerrero, a former Boston educator, repeatedly encountered questions about his six-year tenure as principal of the Dever Elementary School in Dorchester, where he failed to reverse low performance.

The school is now in receivership, and Walsh has vowed to never let another school fall into the state’s hands.

Chang also had a history that raised some eyebrows, most notably his work with charter schools. Many Boston parents and teachers oppose charter schools, which they see as privatization of public education. And some parents and educators also questioned whether Chang has enough management and political skills to run Boston’s system.

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But Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization, said before the vote that Chang has the tools to lead the city’s 128 schools, which have an enrollment of about 57,000.

“In view of the profound restructuring that is occurring in Boston’s public schools, which is bringing such hope for improvement, Dr. Chang’s background and experience appear to be extremely well suited for the challenges and opportunities that Boston presents,” Grogan said.

The news of Bedden’s withdrawal stunned the Boston Student Advisory Council and many parents who showed up at the meeting to testify in his favor.

“We believe he is the kind of collaborative, transparent leader that Boston students and families demand,” said Kalise Osula, an advisory council member and a 12th-grader at Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park.

Others expressed support for Chang after the meeting.

“BPS needs an academic visionary as its next superintendent,” said John St. Amand, a West Roxbury parent and vice chairman of the Boston Special Education Parents Advisory Council. “Chang has that vision and a track record of collaborating well with parents and stakeholders. I believe that Tommy Chang can and will move BPS and Boston forward.”


James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.