Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang reached into the past Tuesday in an attempt to quell the controversy over alleged racial discrimination at Boston Latin School, tapping former longtime headmaster Michael Contompasis as interim leader for the next year.
The 76-year-old Contompasis has deep ties to the city’s top exam school. He guided the school through tough times before, serving more than two decades as headmaster, a tenure that began in the mid-1970s when the city was deeply divided over court-ordered school desegregation, which brought student enrollment and hiring quotas to Latin School.
Some city leaders say Contompasis, known for a take-charge management style, is just the person to steady the nation’s oldest school through its latest crisis, which has attracted a federal probe and at least two School Department investigations. He will replace outgoing headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta, who stunned the Latin School community last week when she announced her resignation.
“While many of us mourn the resignation of Lynne Mooney Teta, there is no one who can lead the school like the way Michael Contompasis can,” said City Councilor Matt O’Malley, a Latin School alumnus, declaring that Contompasis has the right leadership style and gravitas for the job. “He is in a world unto himself.”
Chang announced the appointment at a City Hall press conference, flanked by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and several Latin School alumni, including School Committee Chairman Michael O’Neill. Contompasis is expected to serve as interim headmaster until the end of the next school year, and a new permanent headmaster is expected to be named next March.
Chang announced other leadership appointments at the school, which also lost its top assistant headmaster last week.
Retired Boston school headmaster Jerry Howland will serve as second-in-command as an associate headmaster, and Alexandra Montes McNeil, who is a member of Chang’s leadership team, will become the school’s instructional superintendent. Contompasis and Howland are both Latin School graduates.
Al Holland, another retired local headmaster, will continue to advise Boston Latin into the upcoming school year, focusing on fostering greater cultural awareness and sensitivity.
“I have every confidence that Michael Contompasis and Jerry Howland have the deep experience, the knowledge, and most importantly the passion necessary to guide Boston Latin through this transitional process,” Chang said. “Both have a thorough understanding of the issues facing Boston Latin School and this school district.”
Contompasis was out of town and could not be reached for an interview Tuesday. In a statement, Contompasis thanked Chang for the “opportunity to lead an institution which is such an important part of who I am today.”
“I understand firsthand that we all have a duty to preserve Boston Latin’s mission of providing the very best quality of public education,” he added. “That includes making sure all of our students, faculty, and staff feel safe and supported.’’
But not everyone was so enthusiastic over the appointments.
The local NAACP, which had pushed for Teta’s ouster, was at first cautiously optimistic about the leadership team but was having reservations later in the afternoon about Contompasis, who was a Teta supporter. The organization cited a WBUR interview from March in which it said Contompasis was dismissive of the racial discrimination complaints made by students.
“We need to know if he has come to the realization of the gravity of the issues that need to be dealt with,” said Michael Curry, NAACP’s local president.
A School Department spokesman declined to respond to Curry’s comments directly, but reemphasized Chang’s confidence in Contompasis’ commitment and ability to address the issues.
This is the second time city leaders have turned to Contompasis to get out of a bind. Eleven years ago, Contompasis, who rose through the ranks to become the school system’s chief operating officer, filled in as superintendent for two years — even delaying his retirement — while the city conducted a search for a new superintendent that led to the hiring of Carol Johnson in 2007.
Contompasis then retired, ending a 40-year career. But he never stayed that far away. Mayor Thomas M. Menino leaned on him for advice in running the 57,000-student system and so has Walsh, who placed Contompasis on the superintendent search committee two years ago. Contompasis currently is working as an executive chairman and senior field consultant for Mass Insight Education, a national nonprofit in Boston.
Walsh expressed his appreciation for Contompasis returning to his old job.
“I don’t think I need to get into a conversation about Mr. Contompasis and what he means in this city around education,” Walsh said at the press conference. “Since I’ve been mayor, he has been on my speed dial for a lot of different situations.”
The school has been embroiled in controversy since January, after two students posted a YouTube video that described racial incidents at the school and inadequate responses from administration.
An initial School Department investigation in February found that school administrators acted properly in six cases, but mishandled one case. Since then, the School Department investigated an additional 105 cases regarding racial or ethnic bias at Latin School and determined that administrators acted insufficiently in five of them.
Barbara Fields, a retired Boston school administrator who oversaw diversity issues for the school system, said that she found Contompasis responsive to concerns around racial issues, noting that he brought Latin School into compliance with a court order that required the teaching staff to be at least 25 percent black.
“He started to recruit on his own,” Fields said.
Charmane Higgins, chairwoman of the Boston Latin School Association, said the organization of alumni, families, and faculty was looking forward to working with the new leadership team, adding that it is “one that has a track record of advancing equity issues across the district.”
Richard Stutman, the Boston Teachers Union president who also is a Latin School alumnus, said he was optimistic about the new leadership team bringing stability to the school, saying, “I think the school will get back to where everyone wants it to be.”James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described where Alexandra Montes McNeil went to high school.