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Students, teachers, parents must lead superintendent search

Ruby Reyes

The latest School Committee meeting brought out the beginnings of what a BPS superintendent search process would look like. A representative from the Massachusetts Association of School Committees gave a few pointers and what felt like a pep talk to members of the School Committee. He suggested keeping the search committee small and encouraged members to reach out to their networks, claiming, “there’s no reason to expect less than the best potential superintendents in the country want to come.” 

Many of us sat through the meeting skeptically thinking that a “small search committee” would mean that people who experience BPS classrooms everyday would not make the list. In the last search process, the committee was missing a Black parent. A Black principal who also happened to be a parent, officials claimed to hold that title but was being employed by the district at the time. Alex Davila, former School Committee chair and a nonprofit executive director, and Keith Motley, former Chancellor of University of Massachusetts Boston, co-chaired the process.

This School Committee could do something completely different and select primarily parents, students and educators whose experience and focus is equity. Rather than giving coveted political search committee spots to foundation and corporate leaders, the search should be led by school communities who have experienced closure or budget cuts because of the mistakes of the weighted student funding formula, or parents whose children experience special education and the Office of English Learners on a daily basis. They, more than anyone, have lived experience about what a qualified candidate means.

We also thought about Boston’s reputation of turnover and mayoral control over the superintendent and School Committee, knowing this would have the opposite effect and turn away candidates with a proven track record of success. The Boston superintendent has often been dubbed a political position. Brenda Cassellius said so herself. But we need someone with a proven record of accomplishment in areas of student need, like academics, special education and community engagement focused on families and school communities. We need a superintendent who has shown they have been able to make a school district be about learning, rather than playing politics. In the search process for Cassellius, several School Committee members referred to Boston politics as a “blood sport.”

According to the Globe, Mayor Wu has said she wants to find a permanent replacement by June and that she wants a person familiar with Boston, feeding concerns about whether the decision has already been made. In a city where a list of superintendents have become victims of high-stakes politics, what hope is there in finding a candidate who has shown they care more about a track record of success than being good at playing blood sports?

BEJA’s work has been in pushing a baseline budget of basic services that each school and student should have. Superintendent Cassellius began calling this a “quality guarantee.” We want a school leader who has addressed school budget inequities, does not want to reverse our current exam school policy and will work to develop a master facilities plan that focuses on making schools better rather than closing them. More importantly, we want someone with a proven track record of success when it comes to students with disabilities, English learners and low-income students of color.

What the Mass Association of School Committees pep talk did not include was, will Boston’s legacy of racism and political blood sports attract a good candidate in a few short months?  Mayor Wu’s priority of a person familiar with Boston could have been satisfied by one of the many educators of color who have left BPS to take on leadership in surrounding cities. 

At this critical time, over 70% of Boston voters demanded a return to an elected School Committee, not a hybrid model but an elected body of people who respond to Boston constituents rather than one mayoral vote. Would those who left BPS because they dared to care about education and school communities, rather than bloody politics, return?

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

boston public schools, Boston school superintendent