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How Could Boston's Next Superintendent Change A Climate Of Mistrust?

The Dudley Square headquarters of Boston Public Schools. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Dudley Square headquarters of Boston Public Schools. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The next superintendent of Boston Public Schools will have to handle all manner of practical challenges — like a budget deficit, a facilities overhaul and persistent “achievement gaps” between groups of students.

But some teachers and parents argue that the bigger task is changing a district-wide culture of withdrawal, frustration and faltering morale.

The question wasn’t often raised directly in last week’s public interviews. But it did bubble up in a Twitter thread:

It’s true that last week’s public interviews of the three finalists for Boston’s top education job were sparsely attended, including those that took place after the workday had ended. And for some, that reflects a presumption — true or not — that no one is listening in the central office.

Neema Avashia, a veteran teacher at Dorchester’s McCormack School (which is slated to move and merge as part of the ongoing facilities overhaul), says this communication problem has been developing for years.

The district’s rapid “churn” through superintendents and staffs since Mayor Marty Walsh took office in 2013 means teachers can find it hard to have a “consistent conversation” with administrators at BPS’s headquarters in Dudley Square, Avashia says. "That makes it hard to get better at anything,” she added.

A statement released Tuesday by the advocacy group Boston Coalition for Education Equity (BCEE) described this most recent superintendent search process as “flawed,” “rushed” and contributing to a growing “lack of confidence” in Boston’s school committee, which is appointed by Walsh.

So whoever becomes superintendent will confront a complicated meta-challenge, if he or she chooses to accept it: to heal the political climate in which they were offered the job.

From left: the three finalists for Boston Public Schools superintendent: Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer, Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida; Dr. Brenda Cassellius, recent Minnesota commissioner of education; and Dr. Oscar Santos, head of school at Cathedral High School in Boston. (Courtesy Boston Public Schools)
From left: the three finalists for Boston Public Schools superintendent: Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer, Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida; Dr. Brenda Cassellius, recent Minnesota commissioner of education; and Dr. Oscar Santos, head of school at Cathedral High School in Boston. (Courtesy Boston Public Schools)

A Collaborator-In-Chief?

Several activists and groups, including BCEE, have declared that they hope Dr. Brenda Casellius will get the job, in part because they believe she’s well-suited to rebuild that trust.

That’s likely based in part on Cassellius’s promise to share her personal phone number with anyone who asks for it — and also on her track record.

Teachers’ unions and education commissioners don’t always get along. (For example, the late Mitchell Chester and former MTA president Barbara Madeloni had a strained relationship.)

But in Minnesota, things were more harmonious while Cassellius was commissioner. Denise Specht — who's been president of Education Minnesota, the state’s largest teachers’ union, since 2013 — said she “really enjoyed working” with Cassellius, whom she described as “open and honest and accessible.”

For example, Specht said that as Cassellius redrew the state’s plan for judging school performance, “she toured the state, and she was very open to having input meetings on Saturdays and after work hours” so that teachers and parents could attend.

To be fair, Specht said, Education Minnesota had backed Gov. Mark Dayton, who appointed Cassellius: “That made the relationship a lot easier.”

Kim Ellison, a member of the Minneapolis Board of Education, agreed. She said Boston is “lucky to be able to consider” Cassellius for the role of superintendent, citing her “ability to see the big picture [and] dissect it into smaller, understandable pieces.”

That said, when the Minneapolis board had a chance to make Cassellius its superintendent in 2016, they chose Alaska’s Ed Graff instead by a 6-3 vote.

Several board members who voted against Cassellius in 2016 declined to comment for this story. But at the time, former board member Josh Reimnitz argued that Minnesota’s achievement levels had declined during her commissionership.

(Generally, Minnesota students’ scores on the national NAEP exam either held steady or improved during her nine-year tenure, with a slight decline in eighth-grade reading.)

'Tough Decisions'

Cassellius is the finalist with the most political experience — but the other two argued that they would bring a lot of knowledge to the table as well.

Marie Izquierdo, now the chief academic officer in Miami-Dade County’s giant school district (MDCPS), repeatedly stressed in interviews that she’s “not a one-trick pony,” and that she's been a “thought partner” to MDCPS’s superintendent, Alberto Carvalho, for years, as they managed the details and logistics of educating 350,000-plus students.

And Izquierdo said she has worked well with educators, adding that the head of MDCPS’s teachers’ union was one of her references for the Boston job. (The union president did not respond to requests for comment, and the candidates’ full applications were not released.)

Dr. Oscar Santos — the only local in the group — has served as a “chief executive” of education, but in a much smaller district. He was superintendent of Randolph Public Schools, which enrolls around 2,800 students, from 2010 to 2013.

When Santos arrived, that district was in danger of state takeover due to its academic struggles. Almost six years after his departure, Santos's tenure has become a Rorschach test for different groups in town.

BPS educator Bruce Pontbriand was a school committee member in Randolph during that time, and he said he can’t overstate the difficulty of the task Santos faced there as superintendent.

“When he arrived, a critical mass of teachers and principals had not been evaluated for years,” Pontbriand said. “There was patronage and over-staffing" he added, and many district employees, “entrenched in the status quo,” opposed Santos’s attempts at change.

David Harris, an activist and former school committee member, went further, describing the school committee that sometimes squalled with Santos as racist. After a wave of demographic change, about half of Randolph’s students are African-American.

Harris cited Santos’s implementation of school-site councils, his resistance to police interference in the schools and the district’s academic improvements as positive legacies from his tenure. He described Santos as "an easy person to work with — very respectful."

Of course, some former officials who were in their jobs as Santos took office in 2010 see the matter differently.

Larry Azer, who served on the committee during Santos’s tenure, described the charges of racism as “ridiculous,” saying instead that Santos simply struggled to work well with long-tenured colleagues. “You can pursue change,” Azer said, “but you can’t be a bull in a china shop. A lot of people felt that that’s how he did things.”

Ann Barysh, a former history and social studies curriculum coach, is among those people. In her account, Randolph's schools were beginning to turn a corner before Santos arrived.

Barysh described his management style as “very abrasive, very blunt” — something she put down to his relative lack of experience. It contributed, she recalled, to the exodus of experienced leaders from the district — not just herself, but two principals and an assistant superintendent.

In the end, Randolph schools never passed into state receivership — but whether that was because of, or in spite of, Santos’s leadership depends on who you ask.

Santos, for his part, said that his relatively brief tenure in Randolph hasn’t scared him off from making what can be controversial decisions, including the prospect of “right-sizing” BPS by closing and consolidating schools.

In an interview, Santos said he's happy to discuss his time in Randolph: “It’s never tough to talk about things that were challenges because you learn from them — and that’s a wonderful thing.” He said that he stands by his work in the Boston suburb, including the district's emergence from "turnaround" status.

The Battle Of Ideas

When it comes to BPS's values and its policies, a few old ideological conflicts remain: how to handle test scores and charter schools, and when to close schools, for example.

While Cassellius was dismissive of standardized testing, Izquierdo was more ambivalent: saying she resisted a move to expand testing in Miami in 2014.

And Santos waded into a controversial area right as he assumed his current post as head of the private Cathedral High School in 2013, by signing onto an initiative called Boston:Forward, which called for the elimination of the statewide cap on charter schools and a transformative overhaul of district bureaucracy, among other “breaks from tradition.”

Walsh, though a sometime supporter of charter schools, opposed a move to lift that cap by popular vote in 2016 — and he has come to fault charters for taking up too much of the city’s education budget.

Santos didn’t respond to requests for comment as to whether he still supports the Boston:Forward goals. But in his public interviews last week, he argued that charter schools shouldn’t be allowed to place the budgets of traditional public schools in jeopardy.

Izquierdo, for her part, said she supports school choice. But she also said she’s determined to lure back the 18,000 Boston-based students who’ve left for charter and private schools by consolidating and refocusing BPS schools until there are more "high-quality" options in the district.

On Tuesday, Izquierdo won the endorsement of Latinos for Education. In a statement, the group's CEO, Amanda Fernandez, said Izquierdo was best suited "to support our [English language learners] and special education populations, who need more adequate supports."

The school committee is slated to choose Boston's next superintendent later Wednesday. Whoever accepts the job will have lots of listening to do if they want to win back the trust of a skeptical city.

Related:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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