Marty’s moment of reckoning
When all the snow has melted and the debates are done about space-saver policies and how well — or poorly — the city did at digging out from under it all, we’ll realize that Marty Walsh’s real moment of wintertime reckoning came with his selection of new superintendent to lead the 57,000-student Boston Public Schools. The Boston School Committee is scheduled to vote on the pick tomorrow night. No one has exactly spelled out how all the behind-the-scenes conversations have taken place, but the mayor-appointed board will be ratifying in public a decision Walsh has essentially made in private.
Scrutiny of the candidates and public exploration of their records and views has been in fairly short supply since the four finalists were announced less than two weeks ago. That is a shame, because this is by far the most important personnel pick Boston’s mayor will make, with Walsh’s choice having a far more sweeping effect on the lives of thousands of Boston residents than his picks for police or fire commissioner, or any other top city post.
Sunday’s Globe had brief profiles of the four finalists: Dana Bedden, Tommy Chang, Guadalupe Guerrero, Pedro Martinez. WBUR’s Delores Handy also profiles them. And Universal Hub’s Adam Gaffin had write-ups on each of the candidate’s showing at the day-long set of public interviews they had in Boston last week.
Everyone around town seems to have an idea of who is in the lead, who may be out of the running, and what factors are shaping Walsh’s decision. Some of the speculation may be on the mark, or it may be that nobody actually knows anything.
Former state education secretary Paul Reville, appearing last week on WGBH radio, was critical of the whole selection process, saying the decision to insist that finalists go through a round of public appearances meant the city lost out on potential top-shelf picks who were unwilling to have current employers know they were in the hunt. WGBH’s Peter Kadzis picked up on that theme, and added some further thoughts about the so-called “circus” or “arena” approach to making the selection.
On Saturday, the Globe weighed in with an editorial saying, after a private phase of the search process that went on for months, the public vetting of the choices ought to be given more than the handful of days City Hall has allotted. The paper suggested giving the public process at least a month.
There is no indication that city leaders will be heeding that call. They may, however, be minding the one opinion the paper proffered on the individual candidates: that Guerrero is not the right guy for the job. He was principal of a Boston school from 2002 to 2008 that struggled mightily with student achievement, winding up two years ago in state receivership because of its woeful performance. It “would surely send the wrong message to make him superintendent,” said the editorial.
Meanwhile, a few observers have detected a bit too much swagger in last week’s presentation by Martinez, who seemed to suggest he wanted to help the district regain the national luster it had somehow lost. “This is an interesting strategy for someone hoping to lead a system,” wrote Kevin Murray, a Boston public school father, on his education-focused blog Parent Imperfect.
If the choice, then, comes down to Bedden versus Chang, they offer very different profiles and seem poised to lead the district in very different ways.
Bedden, the current superintendent in Richmond, Virginia, has held a succession of leadership jobs in various districts. He seems cut from the same mold as many urban superintendents, moving up the ladder to a bigger district every few years, leaving enough of a mark in each job to point to some sort of positive impact, but not exactly a change-agent who looks to upset the status quo.
At one point in last week’s interviews, Bedden said he was “okay with” giving individual schools more autonomy, as long as they were accountable for their results. It wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of the move toward greater school-based autonomy that Boston has been following. But Bedden’s steady hand has its fans.
In those ways, Chang seems to fit with the direction the Boston system has been heading. There has been a conscious effort here to break down the wall — and the accompanying acrimony — between the city’s charter and district schools,beginning with a 2011 compact struck between then-Mayor Tom Menino and charter school leaders. Meanwhile, Interim Superintendent John McDonough has quietly overseen something of a revolution in the district’s hiring policies that aligns closely with Chang’s approach.
Walsh has supported McDonough’s hiring reforms, and he spoke often during the 2013 campaign of his support for charter schools, pointing to his own service as a founding board member of a Dorchester charter. What direction he’ll now take, though, is unclear.
Maybe Guerrero and Martinez are still in the running. But if it has come down to Chang or Bedden, selecting Chang would clearly signal a willingness by Walsh to go bolder on school reform. Bedden seems a safer choice, more in the mold of the district’s last superintendent, Carol Johnson, or Tom Payzant before her.
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