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Editorial

After Perille bows out, a chance to get BPS superintendent search right

Mayor Marty Walsh and interim BPS superintendent Laura Perille at a meeting with the Globe’s editorial board in June.
Mayor Marty Walsh and interim BPS superintendent Laura Perille at a meeting with the Globe’s editorial board in June.Keith Bedford/Globe Staff/File/Globe Staff

Running Boston Public Schools — in a city with a wealth of academic and business resources — ought to be a plum posting for any potential candidate for school superintendent. Sure there are challenges — too many aging buildings, racial disparities in student test scores, and politicians who just love to second guess those who make education policy.

But who doesn’t like a challenge, right?

The search for Boston’s next superintendent was made easier Tuesday with interim Superintendent Laura Perille’s announcement in a Globe op-ed that she will not be a candidate for the permanent position.

It’s not that Perille isn’t up to the job. But the perception someone has an “inside” track would have caused other potential candidates to say “never mind” before the paperwork was ever filed. And the way in which Mayor Marty Walsh himself introduced Perille into the system this summer — after his abrupt parting with Superintendent Tommy Chang — forever marked her as “Marty’s” candidate.

When nearly a dozen community, parent, and civil rights groups last month demanded that Perille be banned from applying for the permanent post, that pretty much sealed her fate.

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So now that the search process has begun in earnest with the naming of a diverse and multitalented search committee, it’s time to take a good look at the process and at the very least try not to repeat the mistakes of the all-too-recent past.

The last search process took 18 months in which a search firm came up with 10 candidates, rapidly whittled to four — none of whom exactly knocked the socks off the School Committee or community leaders. One candidate, who had been superintendent of the Richmond, Va., school system for just 14 months, then pulled out just before the vote. Chang, who had never actually run a school system, emerged the winner of a too-long and ultimately disastrous process.

Chang’s departure a mere three years later — after being very publicly undercut by the mayor on a number of issues, including those now notorious early school start times — will surely make the process more difficult.

“The mayor has to make up his mind about what’s important here,” said Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education, now a Harvard education professor. “You can’t make changes in public education without making some people mad.”

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So Walsh may well have to exercise some leadership in encouraging promising candidates to apply, and then take a vow not to micromanage the department — and keep it. (Think former superintendent Thomas Payzant and Mayor Tom Menino.)

The other issue Reville and others have raised is the fact that the final selection process must take place — under the state’s Open Meeting Law — in a virtual fishbowl for the finalists. Who really wants the “boss” back home — be that the school committee or mayor — to know you’ve applied for a new job?

The law “puts us at a competitive disadvantage,” Reville said, but added there are still ways to make the process itself open and inclusive right up to that final vote.

Connecticut, New York, Maryland, and Virginia have created exemptions in the law for educational posts only. Texas selects its final candidate in closed session, but then allows a 30-day comment period before a final vote is taken on that person.

But either option would require a change in the law here, at least for Boston.

A revolving door on the superintendency isn’t a good thing.

The Boston Public Schools need a dynamic, take-charge kind of leader — for the long term. And Walsh needs to decide if he can truly support such a person. Without that kind of guarantee, the candidate pool will shrink rapidly.