Is the playing field level for all three finalists vying for the job of Boston schools superintendent — or is Cathedral High School headmaster Oscar Santos already the anointed one?
The public interview process begins this week. But as Michael Jonas of CommonWealth magazine put it, “it’s hard not to wonder whether home field advantage will be what matters in the end.” Or, perhaps more precisely, hometown media connections.
On April 12, Boston public relations consultant George Regan unexpectedly introduced me to Santos, and we had a pleasant conversation about urban education. When Santos turned up as a finalist for the Boston schools job, our encounter didn’t feel like a coincidence.
The Globe disclosed the names on the front page of the April 17 print edition. They included Santos; Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools; and Brenda Cassellius, former state education commissioner in Minnesota. The next day, Santos got page one treatment in the Boston Herald, next to the headline, “Our Saving Grace.” Inside was a piece he authored, explaining why he’s the right person for the job. The Globe published a follow-up to its own story, quoting Santos directly, with statements from the other two.
Asked about the eye-catching Herald spread, Regan said, “I never talk about what I do.” However, Regan describes Santos as “a good friend” and said his company, Regan Communications, has done some fund-raising work for Cathedral High. But Regan said his connection is personal, not business. His late mother and aunt both graduated from Cathedral and, two years ago, both were honored, thanks to Santos.
As for any perception that Santos is the unofficial front-runner, Regan said, “I don’t know the other two choices. I’m sure they’re fine. What distinguishes Oscar is his knowledge of the city. He grew up here. . . . I think he’d be a magnificent choice.” Regan, whose experience working the Boston media goes back to his days as press secretary to Mayor Kevin White, said he has not spoken to Mayor Marty Walsh about Santos. He said he’s just “one of many local business leaders” who admires Santos. Which raises the question of who is weighing in.
The perception of a fair and open process is important, said Paul Reville, a former state secretary of education, and a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education — especially because of what preceded it. In 2015, Tommy Chang came to Boston from California to take the superintendent’s job. Walsh touted him as a change agent, then unceremoniously pushed him out last June. Walsh chose Laura Perille as interim superintendent, and it looked like the permanent job was hers to lose. However, there was pushback from parents and other community advocates. Ultimately, Perille announced she would not apply for the permanent spot, and an official search was launched.
It included what Reville calls “a very long period of ambiguity,” during which he and others pushed to find out what was happening behind the scenes. In the end, Reville said the Boston job attracted “a reasonable number of qualified candidates.” However, none of the three finalists has experience as a big-city superintendent, making it “less than an A pool,” he said.
Santos does have three years of experience as superintendent in Randolph. And as he told the Globe, “I grew up in Boston. I not only know the geography of the city, but I know the feeling of the city. I understand the scars of Boston busing. I understand the challenges and the inequities that have existed. I know it because I have lived it. It’s not something I have read in a book.”
He also knows Boston well enough to know that the playing field is rarely on the level and that the real contest happens behind the scenes. In this case, the winners or losers of that contest are those children whose future depends on the choice being made for them. They deserve an honest process, not a manipulated one.