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Will Skipper change the BPS culture?

Ruby Reyes

Demanding an end to the pattern of racism targeting Black and brown Boston Public Schools central office leaders, 15 retired high-ranking BPS leaders of color sent a letter to new Superintendent Mary Skipper on Aug. 24, 2022. In the letter, signees explained that “investigative meetings” and administrative leave were used to push out Black and brown leaders, seen as troublemakers.

Skipper hired a lawyer to investigate the accusations in the letter. BEJA requested the investigation include a review of white central office staff who have been at the helm of mismanagement for many years. City and BPS leadership are complicit in giving passes and additional support to white central office staff who continue to carry out decades of chronic mismanagement of critical district areas such as budgets and buildings.

While the 15 letter signees have been out of BPS for several years, the racist pattern of targeting Black and Latino staff continued as recently as this summer, when Dr. Drew Echelson was serving as interim superintendent. In the several months that Echelson was in leadership, key central office staff of color were put on administrative leave. Two were responsible for hiring Black and Latino educators. BPS was reporting 203 vacancies the first week of September. The critical time to fill positions was when the two key staff of color were removed. The Office of Human Capital website says its staff directory is “unavailable,” providing no information as to who is responsible now.

Previous Superintendent Dr. Brenda Cassellius, who hired Echelson, began her tenure with this pattern of slashing key staff of color and prioritizing hires of white leadership, treating central office positions as appointments rather than hiring highly qualified staff. There were few search committees and even less that included community members.

In June 2020, shortly after the pandemic closed schools, Cassellius set this tone by gutting the academic department, which was led by key staff of color. In her three years, Cassellius changed the organizational chart several times, and key white staff were given additional power and control, despite not being qualified for those roles. The state noted excessive transitions in its improvement plan for BPS.

But nothing has been more revealing about the decaying culture of the central office than the Phase III Hinckley Allen investigation of the Mission Hill school. In page 10 of the report, investigators said, “School leaders and their staff largely lack the ability to position or shame District officials to act or respond to their concerns, even as they experience many of the same frustrations as parents in dealing with Central Staff.” Investigators themselves noted they also experienced a similar lack of responsiveness.

The report included a key recommendation on page two: “[Office of] Equity is responsible for investigating staff, but does not have a voice in the disciplinary process. Equity also needs more authority to ensure that BPS personnel attend its training and comply with their reporting and investigatory obligations under the Equity Circulars. However, Equity does not currently have the resources to review and respond proactively to the trends/information collected in the case management system.”

The Office of Equity addresses areas of opportunity or achievement gaps by operationalizing a community engagement process. The systems in place to begin addressing decades of racism, such as the equity tool, are often completed as an afterthought, rather than going through the community process. This further ingrains systemic racism in BPS central office culture.

BPS chickens came home to roost when the superintendent search began under the cloak of Commissioner Jeff Riley’s ongoing threats of state receivership. His bullying and overt public threats, such as withholding BPS’ federal pandemic funding, took its toll in the superintendent search process, which produced only two finalists. Two more people, both candidates of color, were chosen to be finalists, but withdrew their applications. Commissioner Riley, formerly a BPS leader, is now guiding the state’s improvement plan for BPS. Riley and Skipper crossed paths in BPS and were immersed in the same system but claim they will have different results than the decades of systemic racism they were a part of.

With the new superintendent only one month into her tenure, Echelson made clear that they had been meeting frequently prior to her starting. Skipper has yet to address the letter signed by the 15 former BPS leaders at School Committee. The big question is, will she make an effort to change the culture, starting by removing long-time central-office staff who have a proven track record of failure?

Ruby Reyes is director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.