The biggest hit at the mayor’s coffee hour at a Charlestown playground Wednesday morning wasn’t Martin J. Walsh himself but the guest he brought with him: incoming Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, making her first public appearance since being appointed a week ago.
For more than an hour, the former Minnesota education commissioner chatted up the crowd, making introductions and diving into one of the most contentious school issues confronting this booming neighborhood: extremely long pre-K waiting lists. Not that she had much choice but to comment as she faced a small group of inquisitive mothers whose children’s educational futures were in limbo and wanted a quick resolution — one of whom had a petition in hand.
“I don’t want to overpromise,” she said, as she vowed to work with them, collecting their contact information. “There’s no way everyone will get everything that they want.”
Cassellius’s day had her crisscrossing the city, meeting with city councilors at City Hall, touring a Brighton elementary school and then in the evening attending her first School Committee meeting in Roxbury, where her three-year contract was unanimously approved.
The deal, negotiated over just one week, calls for an annual salary of $280,000, annual cost-of-living raises of 2 percent, and a two-year extension based on good performance reviews.
Her salary is slightly higher than that of former superintendent Tommy Chang, who made about $266,000 and resigned last summer. But it is lower than superintendents in other comparable-sized districts, such as Austin, Texas, and Seattle, where they are paid $311,000 and $295,000 respectively, according to School Committee chair Michael Loconto.
The full agreement was not immediately available.
“I’m very anxious to get started,” Cassellius told the board after the vote, while also thanking Interim Superintendent Laura Perille for her graciousness in meeting with her several times and making the staff available to her.
School Committee members welcomed her aboard.
“We are really excited to have you,” said Alexandra Oliver-Davila, the vice chair. “I think you are very talented and skilled.”
Earlier, at the coffee hour, Cassellius stole the limelight from the mayor. As she stood in the crowd and listened to his remarks, the television cameras and photographers focused on her with their backs to Walsh. He didn’t seem to mind, giving her a big welcome.
“In Charlestown, you’ll appreciate this: She’s a huge hockey fan and she plays ice hockey,” Walsh said. “You will see a lot more of her.”
From the start, the Charlestown mothers were eager to meet Cassellius and plead their case, the latest in their lobbying efforts for change.
More pre-K seats are needed across the neighborhood and the city. And in Cassellius, who expanded pre-K in Minnesota, they found a receptive ear. She noted that universal high-quality pre-K was a top priority for the mayor too and that she is determined to make it happen.
She asked the mothers to put together a diverse group of parents to work on the issue, asking them to “reach out to neighbors who have not been involved in the past or feel marginalized.”
“We need to look at this through an equity lens,” she said. “There will be tough decisions.”
Shannon Fitzgerald, who has two children at the Warren-Prescott School, shared with Cassellius how tough it will be to find more space for pre-K, noting her school has already lost rooms for its library and science programs and art is taught from a cart.
In an interview afterward, Fitzgerald said, “It’s a little trial-by-fire to walk into this neighborhood.”
Another parent, Tiara Murphy, who has a child on the waiting list at the Blackstone in the South End and couldn’t even get on a waiting list in Charlestown, urged Cassellius to improve the climate at the school registration sites and make them more welcoming and friendly.
“When we go in there, it feels like jail,” she said.
Cassellius stressed she has no preconceived plans and wants to work with the communities to develop proposals specific to Boston.
“If I came in and said I’m going to do what I did in Minneapolis or Memphis, that won’t work,” said Cassellius, who held high-ranking positions in those school systems prior to her eight-year tenure as Minnesota education commissioner.
She added, “I’m very transparent. I overcommunicate.”
Parents interviewed all expressed optimism about Cassellius.
“She seems very interested in people,” said Elizabeth Barbuto, whose son is 3.
At City Hall, the councilors introduced themselves and talked about their neighborhoods. The meeting was brief. Walsh told the councilors that her appointment by the School Committee represents “an opportunity to push politics aside.”
“To have us all in different places doesn’t help,” he said.
“So far so good,” said Councilor Michael Flaherty. “She comes with a lot of energy and excitement.”
Cassellius was eager to visit the Winship Elementary School in Brighton after reading in the Globe earlier in the week about its running program and wanted to meet the phys-ed teacher, Robert Bowen.
“I love PE,” she told him, which also may be welcome news for fitness enthusiasts who are concerned that all BPS students don’t have adequate access to physical education.
Bowen was amazed she wanted to meet him.
“I think it’s an honor to have someone from above come and check out what’s going on at the Winship.”
Cassellius greeted Winship kindergartners as they came in from recess, giving each of their tiny hands high-fives. Spotting one boy with untied laces on each of his orange sneakers, she asked, “Can I help you?” before crouching down to tie them. By the time she got to the end of the line, the students couldn’t hold back their affection.
“Oh my gosh, I’m getting such great hugs,” she said.
In a classroom, Cassellius helped first-graders navigate the sometimes confusing world of “greater than” and “less than.” Two giggly girls with pigtails paused as they contemplated two squares of white paper — one with the number 26, the other 15. Eventually, they figured it out, choosing 26 as “greater than.”
“Bueno,” Cassellius said. “That’s perfect.”
Mona Ford-Walker, school principal, said she felt encouraged about the school system’s future with Cassellius in charge.
‘I’m very excited about her optimism and her excitement about the new role and getting her feet on the ground,” said Ford-Walker, who attended BPS as a student and returned as a teacher. “We are a district ripe for change.”