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Interim schools chief ready to make ‘important moves’

Marty Walsh and Laura Perille, the interim superintendent, this week.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Laura Perille, the president and chief executive of the Boston education nonprofit EdVestors, said she intends to push for change as the interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, and won’t simply serve as a caretaker until a permanent leader comes aboard.

“The chairman [of the School Committee] and the mayor have given me broad authority,” Perille said Thursday in her first interview since being nominated as the temporary schools chief. “Important moves can be made by an interim that can position the next leader with a better platform than they would be walking into in this particular moment in time.”


Perille’s remarks came during an editorial board meeting with the Globe, as she sat next to Mayor Martin. J. Walsh and a few seats away from School Committee Chairman Michael Loconto, who formally announced her recommendation for the post the previous night. She will replace Superintendent Tommy Chang, after he and Walsh decided last week to part ways, ending a rocky three-year tenure.

Walsh also spoke for the first time at length about the events that led to Chang’s abrupt departure. Walsh confirmed what sources told the Globe last week: A series of problems — including proposals that failed to adequately gauge community support, such as changing school start times; overall dysfunction in the central offices; and a breakdown in trust between district leaders, school principals, and the wider community — led the mayor to believe it was time for a change.

“I don’t know if there was a breaking point,” Walsh said. “Every time we had a start, we had a stop.”

Walsh said Chang appeared to struggle most on the operational side of the school system.

While the mayor did not cite specifics, the school system at times under Chang experienced difficulty getting buses to schools on time, was slow to respond to a malfunctioning school registration Web portal, and didn’t carry through with a promise to expand the number of schools serving breakfast in the classrooms.


Previous superintendents, including Carol Johnson, who served from 2007 to 2013, also struggled to make operations run smoothly.

Walsh, however, praised Chang’s efforts to increase the rigor of instruction in the city’s 125 schools, which included opening up more “advanced work” classes to students of all demographic backgrounds instead of just those who scored high enough to secure a seat.

“I think he laid a strong foundation for the educational side of the district,” Walsh said.

The mayor said he and Chang decided June 20 to part ways — one day before civil rights and student advocacy organizations sued Chang, the school system, and the city to obtain documents that provide insight into the extent that school police reports are making their way to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

Walsh expressed frustration that the national media attempted to tie Chang’s departure to the lawsuit, emphasizing the timing was coincidental and that Chang, an immigrant, is a tireless advocate for those who have come to America.

The Boston School Committee is slated to vote on Perille’s appointment Monday night. It remains unclear how long she will serve in that post. The School Committee has not yet begun the process of finding a permanent replacement. The last interim superintendent, John McDonough, served for about two years until Chang officially took over in July 2015.


Perille said she is modeling her approach to the interim job after McDonough, who took steps to tighten up central management while pursuing some initiatives, such as giving principals broad autonomy to fill teaching positions with outside candidates instead of with veteran teachers. Perille, whose two children graduated from the Boston school system, said she will also bring a parent’s perspective to the job.

“There’s an enormous opportunity to do good in Boston,” said Perille, who declined to say if she would seek the job permanently. “There are already great things happening in a number of schools and in a number of central offices.”

Perille will be the first person from outside a public school system to hold the top schools job in Boston in recent memory. While she is not licensed to run a public school system in Massachusetts, she can apply for a provisional superintendent’s license from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The school system could also seek a waiver from the licensure rules.

The state awards provisional superintendent licenses to individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree and who pass the state’s communication and literacy skills test. The waiver process would be more cumbersome, requiring the school system to publicly advertise the interim superintendent job and then explain to the state why Perille is more qualified than any licensed applicant.

Perille can start the job without either credential, but would need to secure one of them within 90 days, according to a state education spokeswoman.


Walsh said he has outlined three major tasks for Perille to accomplish as interim superintendent: overhaul the central offices, rebuild trust with school leaders and the community, and make sure schools are ready to open in September.

He expressed frustration that some school leaders in recent years appeared to be helping parents, students, and staff organize opposition to various proposals, such as budget cuts and start times.

“We need to make sure the central offices are working properly and not just adding a program or school because it sounds like a good idea and makes a great press release,” he said.

He added that, “We changed everything in City Hall in how we operate, but the school department to some degree is operating as if it’s in the 1950s or 1960s.”

While Walsh does not technically have the power to hire the superintendent, he does appoint the seven-member School Committee, giving him considerable influence over any decision on a future leader.

Perille said she believes the central offices should be organized so they are providing support and resources to individual schools, noting the needs that students face should be driving the work of the school system.

One aspect of her job at EdVestors that she has enjoyed the most, Perille said, is working with schools at the classroom level. EdVestors has worked with the school system on several initiatives, such as expanding the arts, increasing the rigor of middle-school math, and providing more opportunities for career and technical education programs.


The organization also gives out funding to schools to pursue creative approaches to instruction, such as helping immigrant students learn English, and awards a $100,000 School on the Move prize to a Boston school that demonstrates notable improvement.

She said the central offices must include individual schools in decisions about new policies and proposals. Chang had faced criticism from parents, students, and teachers who said they had been left out of decisions regarding their schools.

“Listening is actually critical because teachers and school leaders are the front lines,” she said. “They are the front lines to the communities in many ways and absolutely the front lines to families. . . . They are going to the live the implications of these decisions but also are the ears and windows to families and the community.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.