The “help wanted” sign hangs again in Boston as the city searches for its next permanent school superintendent. Since Tommy Chang departed the school district last summer, the process to find a replacement has been quiet and lacking clear timelines and transparency.
Early on in the process I requested that at least one city councilor have a role on the search committee in order to update the entire council and thus keep our respective constituencies informed. Not only are students and parents left out, but even the council has little knowledge as the process unfolds behind closed doors. As the search progresses, we must ensure the person who takes on this mighty task is well positioned to make meaningful, lasting change; if we learned anything from the shortcomings of the recent interim superintendent process, the only way we can do that is by making the details of the process public-facing and having buy-in from all relevant stakeholders. As a member of the recent headmaster selection committee for Boston Latin School, I saw firsthand the value of transparency and broad stakeholder participation in the midst of broken trust.
As City Council president, I’ve heard directly from parents, teachers, school leaders, BPS staff, community partners, and major funders frustrated that progress in the Boston Public Schools has stalled. Each year, we hear that it will take X amount of years to close the achievement gap, and that our increased financial investments will lead to more equitable outcomes, particularly for our black and brown students. But we have yet to realize these outcomes, and a big part of the problem is a lack of stable leadership. In the last 10 years, there have been four superintendents, two of them interim. As an elected official, BPS graduate, and mother, I share the community’s frustration and join the chorus of those saying we don’t have any more time to waste and must get this process right.
There are some lessons to be learned from the leadership of BPS in recent years. First and foremost, relevant experience matters. Our city’s schools require experienced leadership with a clear vision for what it will take to move the district forward. The individual must be a proven leader with a track record of being courageous. We must also remove all obstacles that may stand in the way of progress. If we are wise, we will let the candidates for this job present their plans for the district, agree to one, and then all get behind the individual and the plan to make it so. The threat of elected leaders micromanaging the day-to-day operations of the district will lead to a less than stellar pool of candidates to choose from. This is an obstacle we can and should remove.
And once we hire the superintendent, we must come together to support that individual and ensure they have political and community support to make necessary changes. Finding the right leader is a good step forward, but no one person can do this job alone. Whoever takes on this role of superintendent will hopefully take risks and undoubtedly make mistakes, and our city’s leaders must stand with them — not step in front of them — to fix those situations when they arise. There must also be a willingness by the community to acknowledge that while their children may be succeeding, it means nothing if all students don’t have the same opportunity for success.
Lastly, part of the substantive strategy moving forward must focus on ways to shift dollars from supporting outdated infrastructure and logistics to funding our classrooms. Our school budget now exceeds $1 billion. While the state must meet its obligations to fund public education, including fully funding its charter school reimbursement, it is difficult to argue the problem facing us is a lack of resources. In reality what we lack is innovation and honest talk about how our resources are utilized. It is for this reason I felt obligated to cast the sole vote opposing the school budget last year when it came before the City Council. My vote was a recognition that our progress is held back by loyalty to the status quo.
Our schools should be undergoing a renaissance and emerging as an example of what’s possible in public education in America. Public education was born in Boston, and our city’s school district is often recognized as one of the best performing large urban school districts in the nation. But we should take no pride in that designation until our system provides an equitable, high-quality education to all.
Let’s move forward with clarity and urgency to attract a leader for Boston’s schools who we deserve — someone who can work with us to deliver a stronger school district for all our families.
Andrea J. Campbell is president of the Boston City Council.