A 12-MEMBER search committee is escalating its efforts to identify candidates from across the nation for the post of Boston Public Schools superintendent. The job is now scheduled to be advertised on May 1, with finalists in place by June. But all this hurrying is coming at a time when the merits of the interim superintendent, John McDonough, are being widely acknowledged across the city. The 62-year-old former chief financial officer for the schools has what no outside candidate can bring: A deep institutional knowledge of the system and its unique mission.
But McDonough has said he’s not a candidate for the permanent job. Mayor Walsh and the search committee should either draft McDonough as a candidate, or postpone the search for two years to allow him to make the kind of reforms necessary to put the system on a stronger footing for a new, longer-term leader.
At a recent public meeting in Roslindale, BPS parents described the qualities they hope the next superintendent possesses: an ethical, honest approach; a familiarity with Boston; a willingness to be held accountable; a track record of academic success; hands-on problem-solving experience; a passion for eliminating mediocrity across the system; a commitment to diversity; strong communication skills; and an ability to promote district schools in the face of intensifying competition from charter schools.
It’s a description that could have been written with McDonough in mind.
At any given time there are a dozen or so highly regarded urban superintendents around the country who are eager to advance their careers. And Boston is considered a plum assignment. But such outside candidates require at least a few years to learn how to navigate both the school system and the politics of the city. Even then, it’s hard to believe they’d have developed a sufficient knowledge of the 128 schools and many hundreds of principals and administrators to act boldly to address the system’s problems. Before too long, these hired guns tend to move on to greener pastures. Appointing such a leader — even an inspiring one — would be a setback for the Boston schools at this critical time.
In the year since the Boston School Committee tapped McDonough to fill in for the departed Carol Johnson, he has pushed aggressively to implement policies that have been talked about — but never acted upon — for years. His moves have been nothing short of a revelation for a system that has often seemed contented with incremental progress, even as an urban renaissance has created the potential for much greater advancement. Most significantly, McDonough’s actions have reflected the confidence that comes with inside knowledge of the system.
For decades, Boston has been hampered by an arcane teacher hiring system that has effectively prevented it from bringing on the most promising new teachers. While suburban school systems scooped up young teaching talent in the spring, Boston limped through the summer trying to assign veteran teachers from an “excess pool’’ with little input from principals. Using his knowledge of the existing teachers contract, McDonough stunned longtime observers when he posted 1,000 teaching positions in March.
Meanwhile, political leaders have insisted for decades that the system has been hampered by inefficient layers of bureaucracy at its headquarters on Court Street. McDonough recently filed a school budget that eliminated dozens of downtown bureaucrats.
The high cost of student transportation in Boston, which pushes $100 million, is another perennial problem. McDonough pushed back in his budget by eliminating school buses for middle school students who can get to school safely for a fraction of the price with MBTA passes. Such moves save funds that could be used to expand early childhood education and help close the academic achievement gap between minority and white students.
McDonough isn’t an inspirational educator. He’s not really an educator at all. He’s a master technician who can pull the levers of the system to the benefit of 57,000 school children. And he can do it without alienating the city’s powerful teachers’ union. That came across clearly last month when McDonough and teachers union president Richard Stutman took the stage together at Madison Park High School, the city’s failing vocational high school. McDonough’s “intervention’’ could lead to the involuntary transfer of teachers and dismissal of some administrators. But for the first time in decades, there is a feeling that both labor and management are committed to providing high-quality academic and vocational instruction at Madison Park.
In the fall, Boston launches a new student assignment system designed to educate more students closer to home. But it will require a lot of fine-tuning from an experienced hand over the next few years. Efforts are also underway to replace outmoded school buildings, a process that requires knowledge of the state’s school building assistance program and a deft hand at local politics. Such issues might confound an outsider.
That’s why it’s important that McDonough stay on the job for another two years at least, enough time to institutionalize his reforms and tackle a few more of the system’s stubborn problems. Once McDonough prepares the ground, the next superintendent could launch the system to a new level of achievement.
Eventually, a charismatic leader with impeccable education credentials and great passion will be needed to raise outside funds and establish strong partnerships with area businesses and nonprofit groups. If such a person were to arrive now, however, they would be forced to spend much of their energy on bus schedules and assignment algorithms. Many BPS parents see significance in hiring a black or Hispanic superintendent. Minority superintendents are known to have particular success at inspiring minority students to embrace academic goals. For the immediate future, however, the battle is best fought by someone with an insider’s understanding of the school budget and operation.
McDonough is not the leader of the Boston Public Schools for the long term. He doesn’t pretend to be. But he’s the right person for the job now and for the next few years. The School Committee could comfortably drop the “interim” part of his title.