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Veteran Mass. school administrator will be Boston’s next school superintendent

Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper during an interview with the Boston School Committee on June 23.
Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper during an interview with the Boston School Committee on June 23.

The Boston School Committee selected Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper to lead Boston Public Schools with a 4-3 vote Wednesday night.

"We need leadership that can hit the ground running," said committee chair Jeri Robinson, in casting the decisive final vote. "And I believe that is Mary Skipper."

Skipper returns to the Boston school system after leading the Somerville Public Schools for seven years. Before that, she was a teacher, principal and administrator for BPS for over 18 years, helping launch TechBoston Academy in 2002.

The 55-year-old Skipper was narrowly chosen over Tommy Welch, a BPS regional superintendent for schools serving Charlestown, East Boston and North End, who came to Boston in 2015 after serving as founding principal of a middle school and high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

“I am honored and humbled to have been selected to lead the district that raised me as an educator and solidified my passion for making a difference in the lives of students,” Skipper said in a statement.

Skipper and Welch emerged as the two finalists to lead Boston's school system from a pool of over 30 total applicants — though two other finalists withdrew their names late in the process.

Each faced a marathon day of public interviews late last week as they were questioned about their leadership philosophy, experience leading school districts and vision for improving equitable outcomes for students.

Skipper succeeds outgoing superintendent Brenda Cassellius, whose last day on the job is Thursday. Cassellius announced in February she'd be stepping down after leading the district for three years.

Skipper will take over the state’s largest school district at an uncertain — and pivotal — time for the Boston Public Schools. Just this week, city officials struck a last-minute agreement with state education officials on an improvement plan that averts a state takeover, for now.

The new memorandum of understanding sets a series of deadlines and benchmarks for district officials to implement improvements in areas like student safety, transportation, facilities, data collection and special education services.

The school committee members did not discuss an official start date for the new superintendent. But at a press conference Thursday morning, Skipper said she anticipates "a phase-in, phase-out process" in Somerville continuing through the beginning of September.

Until that time, Drew Echelson, BPS deputy superintendent of academics, will serve as acting superintendent. Skipper and Echelson have known each other for at least 15 years — both pursued master's degrees at the Harvard Graduate School of Education — and Skipper said Thursday that her "heartbeat went down to normal" knowing that he would be in charge this summer. She added that expects to be in daily contact with Echelson during the transition.

Skipper will step into a role that has had an unusually high turnover rate — five different people have led BPS over the last decade, while the average length of a superintendent’s tenure statewide is five years, according to the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

Other school districts in the U.S., including Dallas and Philadelphia, have faced diminished applicant pools in recent times, pointed out school committee member Michael O'Neill.

While some members questioned the speed of the search process, which unfolded "at a record pace," in the words of member Brandon Cardet-Hernandez, many were still deeply complimentary of the skills and values both Skipper and Welch could bring to the table.

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But, with the new school improvement plan factoring prominently in the background, school committee members said they were confident in Skipper's ability to lead the school system through tough times.

"She is an educator with significant and verifiable experience, and in my opinion, that provides a great value," said committee member Rafaela Polanco Garcia. "She's been dealing with budgets and she's performed to great standards."

The school committee, comprised of members appointed by the mayor, also heard from members of the public, including parents and community partners, for roughly two hours.

Both Skipper and Welch had strong public support in their respective corners. Many parents, for instance, praised Welch’s ability to connect with Latino families due to his fluency in Spanish. Others praised Skipper’s authenticity, compassion toward students and deep ties to the district.

In a statement sent Thursday morning, Welch congratulated Skipper and pledged to remain in district administration. "Despite the process not ending how I would have preferred, I have a renewed sense of commitment to my work in Region 1," he wrote.

School Committee members Quoc Tran, Rafaela Polanco Garcia, Michael O’Neill and Jeri Robinson supported Skipper.

Lorena Lopera, Stephen Alkins and Brandon Cardet-Hernandez voted for Welch.

WBUR's Max Larkin contributed reporting.

This article was originally published on June 29, 2022.

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