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Search for Boston school superintendent moves slowly

Interim Superintendent Laura Perille previously said she wouldn’t apply for the position on a permanent basis.Globe Staff/file 2018/Globe Staff

Nine months after Tommy Chang resigned as Boston Public Schools superintendent, a permanent leader has yet to emerge, raising doubts that the city can get a successor on the job by the next school year.

Little is known about the candidate pool. The most recent information, released in January, put the number of applications at zero, and the search committee is not releasing updated numbers — for now.

School officials insist the search is going well and expect to reveal finalists by the week of April 22. Yet the search committee is still soliciting applications and has not picked semifinalists to interview — a process that would require bringing those candidates to Boston for closed-door meetings and thoroughly vetting them before selecting finalists.


The School Committee is aiming to have a new superintendent by July 1, giving the leader two months to prepare for the new school year.

Alexandra Oliver-Davila, the School Committee’s vice chair who co-leads the search panel, would discuss the recruiting only broadly without divulging numbers.

“We have seen strong interest in response to the position description, and we are receiving inquiries from a number of highly qualified candidates,” Oliver-Davila said in an e-mail in response to Boston Globe questions. “The applicant pool is extremely diverse, including in terms of race, ethnicity, and gender. We are still in a very active period of the search in which we expect to receive many more applications.”

Questions about the search have been swirling since January when Mayor Martin J. Walsh delivered his State of the City address. Notably absent from his remarks was any mention of the hiring effort, sparking speculation about whether finding a new leader was a top priority for him and whether interim Superintendent Laura Perille would serve another year.

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said she is growing increasingly concerned about the pace of the search and the lack of transparency.


“It’s disappointing,” Sullivan said. “At this point, it would appear we are off track in order to have a superintendent in place for a successful start to the 2019-2020 school year.”

History gives reason for concern. Huge delays characterized the last two superintendent searches, causing an interim leader to remain at the helm each time for about two years.

Keeping the number of applicants under wraps is a departure from the last search, during which officials routinely disclosed application numbers, including a breakdown by race/ethnicity, gender, and professional experience. Applications, for instance, grew from 26 in May 2014 to more than 40 in October 2014 to 75 in January 2015.

The School Committee ultimately appointed Chang on March 3 from a field of four finalists who were publicly interviewed at the end of February. He officially began on July 1.

By all accounts, the current search got off to a slow start. The School Committee waited until October — about three months after Chang’s departure — before approving a search committee. It did not hire a consulting firm until Dec. 19, awarding a contract to Isaacson, Miller, a Boston firm with a strong reputation for recruiting nonprofit and higher education leaders but it has not handled a superintendent search in about four years.

School Committee members selected Isaacson, Miller because it wanted a firm that could come up with a fresh slate of candidates instead of recycling those from past searches. They also liked the firm’s record of recruiting candidates of color.


The firm officially met with the search panel on Jan. 14, during which it was revealed no applications had been received. [Perille is not applying.]

Ericka Miller, one of the firm’s partners, said they would move as swiftly as possible but noted the desired timeline was potentially problematic as the search was just formally beginning, according to minutes of the meeting.

“Ideally, we would have started a couple of months ago,” she said, according to the minutes. “This is the delicate dance: What you sacrifice with speed is . . . breadth.”

The search committee, which has met only once since January, will meet again on March 11 — behind closed doors.

Tommy Chang was appointed superintendent in 2015, but at times he and Mayor Martin J. Walsh appeared to be at odds.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/File 2016/Globe Staff

Oliver-Davila said semifinalists will not be chosen until the search committee has a complete pool of applicants. That’s also when information about the candidate roster will be released.

Boston should wind up with a vibrant pool of highly qualified candidates, said Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a membership-advocacy organization representing the nation’s largest school systems, including Boston. He said only about five school systems in the organization have superintendent vacancies, although most of them are not actively conducting searches.

That contrasts sharply with last year when about a dozen systems sought new leaders, including New York and Los Angeles. He said searches typically yield between 10 and 30 qualified applicants.


“The amount of competition that Boston has is extremely low,” he said.

“From what I know of the search process,” he added, “they have been very aggressive in reaching out to people they would like to see apply — on top of what they would attract simply because Boston is one of those plum positions that good talent will always gravitate towards.”

The search has been a touchy issue for the School Committee, which had no say in Chang’s departure even though the board has sole authority to hire or fire a superintendent and gave him positive reviews. Many members learned of his resignation, which followed a meeting between him and Walsh, amid media inquiries last June. Then Walsh pushed for Perille’s appointment as interim superintendent.

Chang’s fate had been speculated upon publicly for months as he and Walsh appeared to be at odds. The dynamics between Walsh and Chang — combined with the School Committee’s lack of power to keep him — could give potential candidates pause.

“In any city with mayoral control, the question is the degree to which the superintendent and mayor can work together effectively,” said Mike Magee, chief executive of Chiefs for Change, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit of district and state education leaders. “I wouldn’t ever advise someone to take a position if they could not work comfortably with the mayor.”

He also contends that the bench of qualified candidates to run urban systems is not nearly deep enough.


Boston also faces another hurdle luring top candidates: the state’s open meeting law, which requires naming all finalists.

“Having your name announced can have huge political costs if they remain in their current district,” said Paul Reville, a professor at Harvard University Graduate School of Education and a former state education secretary. “It can diminish the quality of the applicant pool.”

The last search failed to yield a big superstar among four finalists. Chang was a midlevel administrator in the Los Angeles schools. But the search that led to the hiring of Thomas Payzant in the 1990s as superintendent drew higher-caliber finalists. Payzant was a former US assistant education secretary and a longtime San Diego superintendent.

Michael Loconto, School Committee chairman, said he is optimistic about the search.

“We are plodding along and doing everything methodically and are moving as expeditiously as we can,” he said. “Certainly the demographics and resumes and the types of career markers we are looking for are all there.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeVaznis.