On Boston superintendent pick, mayor’s view looms large
Walsh doesn’t get a vote, but his is the biggest voice
THE THREE FINALISTS for the Boston school superintendent position each faced six-and-half hours of public questioning this week. Each candidate spent a long day going before panels made up of community leaders, teachers and principals, students, and the seven-member School Committee, which will make the pick in a vote expected to come next week.
It was all part of a process aimed at giving the community wide exposure to the finalists – and at allowing a range of voices to question those hoping to lead the district’s 125 schools.
But the Boston resident whose voice will matter most in the selection – Mayor Marty Walsh — was not involved in any of the public interviews.
Under reforms adopted in the early 1990s, Boston scrapped its elected school committee in favor of a board appointed by the mayor. While the school committee has the formal authority by statute to hire the district’s superintendent, the real power over the schools ultimately rests with the mayor.
Walsh has not tipped his hand publicly about his views of the three contenders, but whoever is selected will become one of the key officials in city government, with a seat in the mayor’s cabinet and a prominent public role as leader of the state’s largest school district.
With the School Committee planning to meet and vote to select a new superintendent Wednesday, the coming days will be filled with lots of private conversations among the key players in the process.
“We’re seven members of a governing body, one of whose statutory duties is to hire a superintendent,” said Michael Loconto, the school committee chairman. “We take that duty very seriously, and we consult with the appropriate parties, and that includes the mayor.”
Loconto, who described the process as a “partnership” between the school committee and mayor, said he’ll have a conversation with Walsh in the coming few days, and said he expects that the other six members of the school committee will do as well. “He’s calling members, members are calling him,” said Loconto.
Three superintendents have been hired since Boston made the change in 1992 to mayoral control of schools — along with three interim superintendents who served between permanent selections, including current school leader Laura Perille, who has been in charge since Tommy Chang’s abrupt exit last June, two years before his contract was up.
Since Boston’s change to a mayoral control of schools, Chicago, New York City, and several other big cities have followed suit and given control of their schools to the city’s mayor. The changes have been applauded by some, who say they bring greater accountability to the challenging task of managing large urban districts, but critics have slammed the moves for stripping residents of the voice they had through elected school committee members.
Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which works to match Boston students with workforce opportunities, was one of the main architects of the change to mayoral control of the schools as chief policy advisor to Mayor Ray Flynn.
Sullivan called it a huge step forward given the “history of abandonment” of Boston schools before that by city administrations. “Everyone blamed everyone else,” he said.
As for the behind-the-scenes role of the mayor in the selection process, he said that’s key to the whole reform.
“If you excluded the mayor from this process, you would then squander the asset of this form of governance,” said Sullivan. “The mayor’s accountable for the success of the schools and so of course he or she needs to be on board.”
Between the seven school committee members and the mayor, Sullivan said it would be great if there were full consensus on the pick. “I’m looking for 8-0,” he said. “But I know one person who needs to be on board.”
Finding a candidate who will work well Walsh has taken on even more importance following the messy departure of Chang, who angered City Hall with a proposal to shift school start times that created huge backlash across the city.
Former state education secretary Paul Reville said that backdrop has raised questions about Walsh’s willingness to let the next superintendent chart a course and pursue it.“I had calls from a number of potential candidates for this position and my advice to them is they ought to be having deep conversations with the mayor about the mayor’s vision for where the schools need to be and a commitment that the mayor would let them lead,” said Reville, now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
It’s important for Walsh to articulate a clear vision of “what it would take for the district to succeed,” Reville said. “That’s more just having the busses arrive on time. What would take to better prepare students for college and career success in the 21st century? And what kind of support is he willing to give a superintendent to really promulgate that vision? Thus far we haven’t seen that.”