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Mary Skipper is new BPS superintendent

Rushed selection process sparked controversy, a call for do-over

Meg Woolhouse and Saraya Wintersmith
Mary Skipper is new BPS superintendent
Incoming Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper addresses reporters outside TechBoston Academy. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

The Boston School Committee has narrowly voted to name as its next superintendent Mary Skipper, a veteran educator who rose through the ranks in the school system.

The 4-3 vote last Wednesday night followed weeks of turmoil and came just two days after city and state officials reached an agreement to make sweeping fixes to the district. School committee members cited Skipper’s experience as the current superintendent in Somerville as a deciding factor over Tommy Welch, who currently works as a regional superintendent in Boston.

Skipper said the process was like watching “a really good World Cup” game.

“It was stressful,” she said. “I think what I felt in my heart, though, was that no matter what the decision — knowing Dr. Welch — that whatever the decision, that the students of Boston would be in good hands.”

Mayor Michelle Wu and Mary Skipper outside TechBoston Academy. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

Last Thursday morning, Skipper appeared with Mayor Michelle Wu at Dorchester’s Tech Boston Academy, a school she helped transform after its predecessor, Dorchester High, was dismantled.

“There wasn’t a day I woke up … driving to this building, [that] I did not get excited and amped for that possibility,” Skipper said from the school’s front steps. “That’s what we need in BPS. We need every Boston public school to be a place where the staff can go in and know that they’re supported and have the tools they need to serve our students and families.”

Skipper also said she understands the key imperative demanded by the state: to address the persistent struggles the district has faced giving special education and English language learners a better education.

“That’s one out of every two students in our district, so there is no greater priority,” Skipper said.

School Committee Chairwoman Jeri Robinson, who cast the tie-breaking vote, said that’s part of the reason she supported Skipper’s selection: she will “hit the ground running, doing that work.”

The close vote was a departure for a body that on big decisions has usually bent to the will of the sitting mayor, who appoints its members. Quoc Tran, Rafaela Polanco Garcia, Michael O’Neill and Robinson voted for Skipper. Lorena Lopera, Stephen Alkins and Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, three newer and younger members, supported Welch.

Education activists and the Boston NAACP had urged Mayor Michelle Wu to reopen the search for the next superintendent, questioning the process and whether the threat of receivership or a state takeover had made the job less attractive to outside candidates. Two candidates withdrew in recent weeks, but the job opening had drawn more than 30 applicants.

Cardet-Hernandez said he agreed with critics that the selection process was broken. He said he was impressed by Welch’s work in East Boston improving MCAS scores and attendance rates.

“I’ve heard from parents, particularly Latino families, who have felt seen and heard by Tommy and maybe even more importantly, they have said that their voice felt represented by him,” he said. “And that matters to me deeply.”

Committee vice chair Michael O’Neill said he was impressed that former President Barack Obama visited TechBoston Academy to honor its accomplishments when Skipper was principal there.

“I realize I deeply value the experience of a sitting superintendent. And that to me was the critical factor,” he said in support of Skipper.

Skipper, 55, is a seasoned administrator and the only finalist with experience running a district. Raised by a single mom who almost didn’t finish high school in the Arlington-Somerville area, she told the school committee last week that her teachers were a lifeline.

“Teachers were surrogate parents to me, they played a deep role in my life, so many of them, and really transformed how I thought about education, what it meant,” she said. “When it came time to choosing a career, it didn’t even feel like a choice. It felt like something that I just knew I needed to do.”

Skipper became a teacher in Boston, then a principal at TechBoston in Dorchester, where was credited with improving student graduation rates. She became a district administrator overseeing a network of schools and nearly 20,000 students before accepting the job of superintendent in nearby Somerville. She indicated in her school committee interview last week that she knew such experience would be helpful if she returned to Boston as superintendent.

“BPS has raised me,” Skipper said. “I really learned to be outward facing to my families, to my students. And I learned the power of when community and families and students and educators come together, what makes possible for students.”

Skipper has said she plans to officially start in late September.

Deputy Superintendent Drew Echelson will act as interim superintendent.

Meg Woolhouse is GBH News’ K-12 education reporter. Saraya Wintersmith covers Boston City Hall for GBH News.