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Transparency, community input key to successful superintendent search

Ruby Reyes

As Boston begins yet another search for a BPS leader, what is most evident is the desperate need for parents, students and educators to be involved in the selection process and not as an afterthought. The backdoor politics of mayoral influence has produced the same broken results when what we need is a system-thinking superintendent with a proven track record.

The question everyone is wondering is, who will be the next mayoral appointment to the role? If Boston continues to uphold a flawed process of mayoral selection, lacking in transparency or community input from parents, students and educators, then the results will be the same revolving door of unqualified candidates and more instability.

Boston residents voted overwhelmingly to support a return to an elected School Committee in November’s elections. An elected School Committee, while certainly not a silver-bullet answer, would add some democracy into the current system of political appointees. Mayor Michelle Wu has indicated that she wants to find a permanent superintendent to start in the fall. This leaves little time for a search for qualified candidates with proven track records, or for a community engagement process that brings parents, students and educators into decision-making. What is most evident is the desperate need for a new process that does not replicate the history of flawed searches and mayor-selected candidates.

The recent announcement of the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Brenda Cassellius feeds a flawed leadership selection pattern because of a heavy-handed mayoral role in the Boston Public Schools. In public statements, Wu said the resignation was a “mutual decision.” The announcement felt like a replay of former Mayor Marty Walsh’s unilateral appointment of former Superintendent Tommy Chang and his unceremonious dismissal with another “resignation.”  The abrupt departure received community pushback, not because of Chang’s work, but instead with many questioning Walsh’s complete disregard for the voices and needs of BPS families and school communities.

Walsh then appointed Laura Perille as interim superintendent. Perille was executive director of EdVestors at the time, solidifying Walsh’s blatant prioritization of private corporate funders over academic or managerial qualifications. The mayor’s influence in the selection of Cassellius was covert. The selection committee created a job description explicitly requiring at least five years of superintendent experience. Three candidates emerged. None of the candidates met the qualifications outlined in the job description. Community members were left with Cassellius as the obvious lead.

Chang and Cassellius both served three years in BPS leadership, each starting new initiatives with a mayor wanting to put legacy stickers on recycled ideas with disregard for community engagement processes. Walsh used Cassellius much in the same way he used Chang, as a political tool to prioritize voting residents by moving an agenda that penalized “under-performing” schools. Walsh did this without a basic understanding of the inherent inaccuracy of the MCAS exam, which fails to measure true progress in schools and the racist ideology embedded in standardized tests. Walsh then announced the BuildBPS plan in 2016, claiming to invest $1 billion in new schools and facility upgrades, but in actuality only pushed school closings.

Cassellius began using the Walsh playbook on hiring. The BPS Central Office became a revolving door of staff, with few to no hiring committees for stakeholder feedback or national searches to create larger pools of qualified candidates. Vital roles were filled with people who were under-qualified. There was a major rotation of roles in Academics and the offices of English Learners, Special Education, and Community Engagement, contributing to instability and unnecessary obstacles.

We know that constant disruption is not healthy or beneficial for students or school communities. Boston Public Schools needs an experienced leader. It’s time to put politics and philanthropic power plays aside and put students and learning communities first. This starts with a transparent, public and community process.

Ruby Reyes is executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.