In emergency, break glass, remove Contompasis
Boston Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang made the announcement about the new interim headmaster for the embattled Boston Latin School, but if you look closely, you can see Mayor Marty Walsh’s hand up his back.
Chang is from Los Angeles so his institutional knowledge of who can put out fires here is limited, but it should surprise no one that that one-time, longtime Boston Latin headmaster Michael Contompasis would be the guy to seal the breach.
“Since I’ve been mayor, he has been on my speed dial for a lot of different situations,” Walsh said at the press conference. Contompasis, who was out of town, wasn’t at the presser.
What’s likely is that Contompasis was on the mayoral speed dial when Walsh came in and he never removed him. Contompasis was the education go-to guy for the late Tom Menino as well, becoming the district’s COO and serving as interim superintendent in the years between Thomas Payzant and Carol Johnson. Menino also used Contompasis as a sounding board for education issues and Walsh appointed him to the search committee that resulted in Chang’s hiring.
Without question, no one knows the impact of race on the exam school better than Contompasis, who has steered Boston Latin through roiling waters on both sides of the divide. Contompasis was the headmaster in 1976 when court-ordered desegregation required the city to reach a 35 percent quota of minority students admitted to the school as well as increase faculty diversity. By all accounts, Contompasis took it upon himself to recruit minority teachers to reach the 25 percent level.
Two decades later, Contompasis was still at the helm when Michael McLaughlin, a white Boston lawyer, sued the city over the racial quotas after his 13-year-old daughter Julia was rejected for admittance. Judge W. Arthur Garrity, whose original decision triggered desegregation and who ordered the set-aside, indicated the quotas would not pass constitutional muster and ordered Julia McLaughlin admitted. Just weeks before the trial was to begin, the city dropped its quota system.
But since then, minority enrollment in the school has dropped precipitously. In a system that has 80 percent students of color, nearly half the seats at Boston Latin are occupied by whites, many of whom come from private and parochial elementary schools. Blacks make up less than 9 percent of the student population, while Hispanics comprise 11.6 percent, according to state figures.
Leaders of the black community have been increasingly vocal about the atmosphere at Boston Latin, laying the blame squarely on Mooney Teta and her staff. They say because of the small numbers of blacks and Hispanics, it’s easy for the administration to dismiss concerns over harassment and bigotry.
And while the initial reaction to Contompasis’ appointment was guardedly optimistic, some questions arose later in the day as attention was called to an interview the 76-year-old career educator gave on WBUR supporting Teta and, in some interpretations, dismissing the allegations of racial insensitivity.
But for Contompasis, his marching orders at his alma mater are clear: Calm the roiling waters and steady the ship for a year while a search for a permanent replacement is underway. His responsibility isn’t to make wholesale changes in the attitudes at the school, but it’s hoped his knowledge and presence can ease the charged atmosphere. Because he’s been there, done that.
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