Boston superintendent search fell short on community engagement
Process did not include full range of stakeholders
AFTER ONLY 14 DAYS since the three finalists were announced, and a mere week after the conclusion of interviews, the Boston School Committee will vote on Wednesday to confirm their choice for the next superintendent. Should their selected candidate accept the role, the process will conclude — but it will not have been a success. Selecting a superintendent happens perhaps a few times a decade, and therefore presents a unique opportunity for the leadership of the city to engage the community. Unfortunately, this opportunity has been squandered, and instead real damage has been done to our community.
Nearly every person in the city will be impacted directly or indirectly by the future superintendent, and that means that all of us have some level of personal stake in this decision. Visionary leadership would have recognized this latent energy and capitalized upon it. The outreach process might have intentionally built relationships, skills, and connections, creating an engagement infrastructure to facilitate connections with stakeholders in the future. It might have engaged with people whose voices are rarely heard in city-level decision-making. It might have authentically brought more young people into the process around a decision that most directly impacts them.
We had a chance to activate and empower voices across the city, engage in authentic dialogue across race and class boundaries that have long divided Boston, and come together around a critical decision that will define the city’s schools for years to come. Sadly, our city and district leaders chose to aim much lower, and were content to design a process meant only to preserve the status quo.
This choice may have lacked vision, but it was also carried out with a level of incompetence that has damaged our community. They relied on tired methods of outreach that diffuse the power of individual voices rather than building towards consensus. The one organization in the district tasked with representing parents in every school, the Citywide Parent Council, was kept off the search committee. Despite an appeal directly to the Mayor, there was no independent black parent on the screening committee. The expertise of the city’s advocacy organizations and the different stakeholder groups they represent was held at arm’s length. By ignoring the collective wisdom held by these groups, city and district leaders made a host of willful or willfully ignorant mistakes throughout the process.
Authentic engagement involves not just giving people a chance to say things, but showing them how they have been heard. City and district leaders have fallen short, failing to be transparent about what they gathered through listening sessions and surveys and how they have made use of that input in their decision making process. The job description and qualifications did include requests put forth by community members, but the slate of finalists do not meet the job requirements listed there, and no explanation has been given about why and how these three candidates rose to the top of the pool.
As a final blow, finalists were announced in the middle of school vacation week, with interviews to begin the Monday following a weekend that included Easter and the beginning of Passover — making it all but impossible for community, parent, and youth groups to conduct needed outreach. The impact of this timing has already been seen, with painfully low attendance in interview sessions where virtual participation was not possible. Community members could only sit back and watch, hoping that their concerns might be addressed.
This process, flawed as it has been, may still yield a superintendent. Several parent, youth, and community groups are rushing through the work that city and district leaders chose not to support — polling their memberships, circulating summaries of the interviews and information gathered about the finalists, and considering whether they can endorse any of them. Unfortunately, the future superintendent must contend in their first days with healing the damage done by this process. We must hope that they have the community engagement skills to be up to the task.
Imagine the alternative — a superintendent chosen through a truly democratic, authentic engagement process that built trust and connective tissue with community organizations, school parent councils, and youth to make it easier to hear from and speak to all stakeholders. This superintendent would come into office on a wave of public support, and have tools at their disposal to understand the potential impacts of decisions before making them — especially valuable given some of the tough decisions on the horizon.Building the kind of civic engagement that enables elected officials and the leaders they appoint to maintain public support through such decisions takes vision and skill. We must hope that our city and district leaders find that vision for a better and more equitable school system and city, or else get comfortable with the status quo.
Mary Battenfeld is a founding member of QUEST (Quality Education for Every Student). Edith Bazile is the president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts. Donna Bivens is education justice coordinator of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods. Rev. Willie Bodrick II is chair of the Boston Network for Black Student Achievement. Barbara Fields is a member of the executive board of Citizens for Public Schools. Jane Miller is a co-founder of Start Smart Boston. Lucas Orwig is the Hernández K-8 representative on the Citywide Parent Council. Ruby Reyes is director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance.