Wu walked fine line in superintendent pick
New mayor wanted her own school leader, but never publicly tipped her hand
IT’S A FRAUGHT TIME for the Boston Public Schools – and not just because of the recent pressure from state officials, who held the threat of receivership over the system in order to reach an agreement with the city on an aggressive timeline for reform of basic district functions. The city, which has operated under mayoral control of its schools for more than three decades, also just completed a search for a new superintendent against the backdrop of growing public support for a return to an elected school committee.
That put Mayor Michelle Wu in the challenging position of wanting some say in the superintendent selection while going further than her predecessors to try to avoid appearing to bigfoot a process that puts all the official hiring power in the hands of the mayoral-appointed school committee.
Wu opposed an advisory ballot question last fall, overwhelmingly approved by voters, asking residents whether they favor a return to an elected school board. But she said she would support a hybrid school committee in which a majority of members are elected while the mayor fills the remaining slots. Wu has nonetheless said she wants a strong role for the mayor in the schools and accountability for their performance.
That was made abundantly clear in February when, less than three months after taking office, Wu announced that, by “mutual decision,” the city reached an agreement with then-superintendent Brenda Cassellius to end her tenure.
As the search for a new district leader got underway, however, Wu did suggest that the schools might be best served at this time by someone with prior background in the system.
In the end, the two finalists who underwent public interviews both fit that bill: regional Boston school superintendent Tommy Welch and Somerville school superintendent Mary Skipper, who spent years before that as a Boston Public Schools teacher and principal.
In a narrow 4-3 vote last week, the school committee chose Skipper, who plans to take the reins in the fall.
In 2015, hours before the school committee was to meet and settle on a new superintendent, then-mayor Marty Walsh made clear his support for Los Angeles educator Tommy Chang, who was then selected in a 5-2 vote.
In contrast, Wu did not publicly declare her preference between the two finalists. Her office did not respond to a question asking whether she weighed in privately to school committee members. The two school committee members appointed by Wu since she took office voted for Welch. One well-placed Boston education observer nonetheless suggested Wu’s office did end up pushing for Skipper. “There was a lot of behind the scenes work done for the mayor,” the person said, adding, “My understanding is it could have gone either way until the very end.”The search committee had originally settled on four finalists, but two, a Black woman and Latina, withdrew from consideration before the public interview process. That prompted criticism that the final selection did not include a Black or Latino candidate in a district where those groups make up more than 70 percent of the student population. Skipper is white and Welch is Asian American. There were even calls to reopen the search process, something Wu and school committee chair Jeri Robinson quickly dismissed.
Whatever may have gone on behind the scenes, Wu and Skipper are now joined at the hip and will share credit – and blame – for what happens with the school district going forward.