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Mayor Walsh Scraps City Hall Education Post He Created

As Brenda Cassellius takes over as the next superintendent of Boston Public Schools, she won't be working alongside a cabinet-level aide to the mayor. Mayor Marty Walsh said Friday that he won't appoint another "education chief" for the foreseeable future.

Walsh said the position makes less sense today than it did in 2014, as he first took office.

"When I ran for mayor of Boston, there was a lot going on," Walsh said, including his campaign promise for universal pre-kindergarten and the district-wide facilities overhaul now known as 'BuildBPS.' As he took office, Walsh said he anticipated that he'd need to work to establish a more collaborative relationship between public, private and charter schools.

"In the past, I'd felt that the BPS superintendent got bogged down in those issues" which extend beyond their typical responsibilities, Walsh said. With that in mind, he appointed Rahn Dorsey — a veteran of the Barr Foundation — to lead his 'education cabinet' and bridge the gaps between the sometimes siloed worlds of education and government.

Dorsey went to work, Walsh said, especially on expanding pre-kindergarten and on "unified enrollment" — an attempt to present families with a single, streamlined application for both charter schools and traditional district schools. Released city emails show Dorsey was also involved in early conversations about selling or leasing 30 to 50 of the city’s school buildings, possibly to become charter schools.

Dorsey stepped down from the position last November. He was paid a salary of $139,050 in 2017. Five years after Dorsey's appointment, Walsh said, the state of play around education has changed dramatically.

"We have a pathway toward full, universal pre-kindergarten over the next bunch of years," Walsh said. "And the charter-school question has been answered because the voters said no" at the ballot box in 2016 by a wide margin.

City leaders have stopped discussing the push for unified enrollment; Walsh said, "We weren't able to finalize that, because there's so many other people saying they wanted it, they didn't want it."

And publicly, city officials have abandoned the idea that the physical footprint of BPS needed to be dramatically downsized. If anything, Walsh said, they've come to realize "we don't have enough space" to provide students with a 21st-century education. Still, several schools are set to close or consolidate as part of BuildBPS.

“I think it’s incredibly important that Dr. Cassellius have the full support of the city and a clear field of play."

Laura Perille, outgoing Boston interim school superintendent

On Friday, Walsh acknowledged a widespread assumption that Laura Perille — who steps down as interim superintendent on June 30 — would succeed Dorsey as chief. But he said those suspicions were groundless. And Perille said she herself recommended to Walsh that the position be “rethought, and potentially eliminated.”

“I think it’s incredibly important that Dr. Cassellius have the full support of the city and a clear field of play,” Perille said in an interview, adding that she has “great faith” that Boston’s many stakeholders will embrace Cassellius as the unquestioned leader of Boston Public Schools.

Nevertheless, Walsh said that while the idea of an education chief is "on ice," he may appoint an education adviser in the future, as necessary.

In recent years, some activists and commentators have argued for lessening mayoral control over the district, perhaps by returning to an elected school committee. Eliminating this post could indeed be seen as a way to clear the path for Cassellius — who, until this winter, oversaw all of Minnesota's public schools — to pursue her particular vision.

But Walsh said he has never tried to micromanage Boston Public Schools, and that this is a more modest change than it might appear.

"I [still] want to be briefed on what's going on," Walsh said, "But my job is to provide [BPS] with the tools they need to be successful" and to support the district in its needs. He also warned against thinking he's out of the picture when it comes to education, as for any other policy area. "The way the public sees it, the mayor is responsible. That's my job."

For his part, Dorsey said he was "a little disappointed" by the change, saying, "I hope it doesn't mean taking our collective eyes off of the need for a pretty holistic strategy" for education in Boston. He said some of the city's educational problems are solved by "making sure that we show up in other points in young people's lives, and show up for their families" outside of the classroom, too.

But he added that ultimately, "what matters most to me is that the city continues to dedicate sufficient capacity to supporting whole-child development ... from pre-K to early adulthood, in and out of school."

Cassellius, for her part, isn't concerned about working in a political context, no matter her exact reporting relationships. "One thing's for sure: it will take the school committee, me and the entire BPS team — and the mayor leveraging his entire cabinet — to support children and families," she said.

Given the education vision Cassellius outlined in her public interviews — in which the schools would be active participants in families' lives, by connecting them to health and housing services, for example — that "all-hands-on-deck" approach may prove indispensable.

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

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