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Friends of O’Bryant School Allege Neglect in Hiring of New Headmaster

Howard Manly | 8/21/2013, 10:17 a.m.

In a strongly worded letter, Friends of the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science blasted Boston Public Schools for “lack of oversight” and “neglectful execution” in the process of finding a new headmaster.

The current headmaster, Steve Sullivan, was asked to step down at the end of the last academic year,. During the year, a selection committee reviewed applicants for a permanent replacement.

But the process was flawed from the beginning, the letter charged, and underscored a deteriorating school environment in which an O’Bryant math teacher reportedly told a meeting of staff and faculty that she would not let “the inmates run the asylum.”

The letter stated that the search process was “neither transparent, inclusive, democratic, equitable [nor] remotely diverse.”

Three candidates made it to the final round of interviews, but each was rejected on what the letter characterized as “baseless and subjective” grounds.

The three candidates were all African American — one woman and two men. The search committee was comprised of five white members and one black member and, according to the letter, included only one parent who was not elected by the O’Bryant Parent Council.

“After concerns were expressed to the deputy superintendent prior to the interview process that the committee was neither duly formulated [nor] representative of the rich diversity of the O’Bryant community, she failed to intervene to correct the situation,” the letter stated.

Worse, the letter noted, the deputy superintendent “was not present” during the interviews and delegated the responsibility to the headmaster of another exam school.

Named after Boston’s first African American elected school committee member, the John D. O’Bryant School is located on Malcolm X Boulevard in Roxbury and traces its history back to 1893, when it was founded as the Mechanic Arts High School. It became Boston Technical High School in 1944.

The O’Bryant is one of the city’s three exam schools. The other two are Boston Latin Academy and Boston Latin School.

The school has a student population of about 1,300. Black students are 35 percent of the school’s population, Hispanic students are 29 percent and white students are 11 percent. Nearly 70 percent are considered low-income students.

Boston school officials were unavailable to comment.

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said that he was unsure of the reasons that Sullivan was asked to step down and was unaware of the all the details involved in the search process. The one thing Stutman said he did know was that he respected Sullivan, who he believes remains as the school’s headmaster.

“He’s a good leader, a good educator, willing to admit mistakes,” Stutman said. “He’s one of the best teachers in Boston.”

Stutman did say that a national search had been launched to find Sullivan’s replacement but that the search “went nowhere.”

According to the letter, the search for a new headmaster is only part of the problem.

The letter details a work environment that was characterized as “racially hostile, disrespectful, dismissive and quite unprofessional.”

More troubling, according to the friends of the school, the math director “led the opposition to each of the applicants for the headmaster’s job.”

“The school department and O’Bryant community have known from the onset of the past school year that a new, capable and visionary headmaster is needed at the O’Bryant,” the letter stated. “There also was more than sufficient time for a democratic and transparent process to unfold and to assure that discriminatory practices of the past would not emerge again.”

But according to the letter, the emergence of discriminatory practices is exactly what happened. The letter offered two potential solutions.

The first was to replace each of the members on the selection committee and re-interview the top applicants for the position of permanent headmaster. The second proposed alternative was the appointment of a temporary headmaster from outside of the Boston Public Schools system.

The letter also urged the Boston Teachers Union to facilitate an “open and transparent” election of faculty, staff and students to sit on a new interview committee.