John McDonough’s first task: Attract excellent principals, headmasters

The search committee for a new leader of the Boston Public Schools clearly got the message, from across the educational community, that the system would benefit from one more year under the steady hand of interim Superintendent John McDonough. Keeping McDonough in place serves two immediate goals: It allows him to solidify important reforms already in progress and gives the Walsh administration plenty of time to find an outstanding superintendent for the 2015-16 school year.

The greatest gift McDonough could bestow on his successor would be the presence of top-notch principals and headmasters at each of the system’s 127 schools. Currently, there are about a dozen principal openings for the fall. Next, McDonough must finish overhauling the outmoded hiring system that allowed veteran teachers, based only on seniority, to fill open positions before outside candidates could be considered. McDonough already has taken a huge step by finessing the teachers contract in such a way that principals can sidestep the so-called teacher excess pool and compete for talent with surrounding districts that hire in the spring. Nothing is more important to the success of the system's 57,000 students than giving principals a chance to build their own teams of outstanding teachers. But McDonough must also address systemic problems such as the absence of “a sense of teamwork or shared responsibility for the district’s students,” cited this week in an external review.


Next on the list is keeping faith with the city’s taxpayers, regardless of whether they have children in the schools. A recent audit ordered by McDonough revealed more than $21 million in losses in the food service program during the past eight years. This reflects the system’s long history of operational failures, ranging from poor procurement procedures for athletic equipment to chronically late school buses. McDonough, who served for 18 years as the system’s chief financial officer, already has used his promotion to make personnel changes in the central office. But he will need to make significant changes in operations over the coming months so that the next superintendent can focus primarily on improving academic achievement.

The complexity of a new student assignment system and the transition to new state student assessment tests also argue for keeping McDonough in place for another year. With the need to spin so many plates in the air, a newcomer to the system couldn’t help but break a few. The next superintendent will be grateful for the work McDonough does over the next year to prepare the system for more success in the future.