Bleach Denim

CommonWealth Magazine

THE BOSTON SCHOOL COMMITTEE gave Superintendent Brenda Cassellius a positive job review for her work during a difficult year and seems poised to grant her a two-year contract extension at its next meeting this week. But candidates for mayor are divided on whether her rocky tenure should be extended on the brink of an election for a new city leader and amid the turmoil and turnover on the School Committee, which is charged with hiring and oversight of the superintendent. 

Cassellius is completing the second year of a three-year contract, but under the terms of her agreement the School Committee must vote by Wednesday to grant her a two-year extension or else an automatic notice is triggered that the city is not renewing her contract when it expires 12 months from now. 

Hardin Coleman, the school committee member tasked with overseeing the superintendent’s  review for the year, said at the panel’s last meeting that he plans to recommend an extension, a move that the committee is expected to ratify at its meeting this week. But the decision comes as Boston — one of a handful of big cities with mayoral control of its schools — is poised to elect a new mayor. Half of the six candidates running for the job say it would be wrong to offer a two-year extension to Cassellius so close to the election, while half say the district desperately needs the stable leadership that an extension would bring. 

Boston school superintendent Brenda Cassellius.

The Boston Public Schools account for $1.25 billion, or roughly a third of the city’s $3.6 billion annual spending, and the school superintendent and police commissioner are widely regarded as the two most important jobs in city government. 

The police commissioner’s position has been the focus of tremendous controversy, and is now held by an interim police leader after the firing earlier this month of Dennis White by Acting Mayor Kim Janey. While the candidates for mayor all weighed in on the leadership crisis in the police department, the race has seen little discussion until now of candidates’ views of Cassellius and whether she should lead the district going forward. 

City Councilor Michelle Wu, one of the candidates opposed to an extension, said whoever is elected mayor in November needs the freedom to bring on a superintendent who can work to implement their vision for the schools.

“We are just over four months away from a new administration taking office, and there’s been a wide ranging, intensive conversation on the campaign trail between different visions for the Boston Public Schools,” said Wu. “And given that this is such a momentous time in the city’s recovery and that our schools especially have experienced so much, the incoming mayor should have the flexibility to work with the school committee and ensure that we have leadership to match the vision of the new administration.” 

Expressing frustration with the current pace of change in the schools, Wu said “familiar gaps in our academic outcomes and resource levels persist year after year, when it comes to students with disabilities or English language learners or the ongoing conversations about inequities in our high schools.” 

Jon Santiago pointed to the churn on the school committee in opposing a contract extension. “The Boston School Committee should not be making any decisions on the superintendent’s future when they cannot even get their own house in order,” he said. Santiago, a South End state representative, said the committee lacks “the accountability, transparency, and diverse representation to meet the moment right now.” 

Since October, four members of the mayoral-appointed school committee have resigned, including two Latino members who stepped down earlier this month. Their slots remain open, leaving the seven-member body currently operating with only five members in addition to a non-voting student representative. 

City Councilor Andrea Campbell suggested the school committee offer Cassellius something short of a full two-year extension — though it’s not clear from her contract whether that’s a viable option or is something she’d agree to. 

“With so many open seats on the School Committee and a Mayoral election right around the corner, now is not the time for a multi-year extension of the Superintendent’s contract, but rather a temporary renewal that allows for the stability that our students deserve,” Campbell said in a statement. 

The three other candidates for mayor are urging the school committee to approve a two-year contract extension. 

“Superintendent Brenda Casselius [sic] has provided steady leadership during a time of crisis and shares my vision for excellence and equity in public education,” Janey, the acting mayor, said in a statement. “I support the School Committee’s recent evaluation of Superintendent Casselius [sic] and look forward to their vote on the extension of her contract when they meet on June 30.”

City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George said failure to extend Cassellius’s contract would only compound the problems being dealt with by the district. 

“A vote not to renew the Superintendent’s contract would only add to the instability our students, families and educators have already faced during the pandemic,” she said in a statement. “The past year and a half has been challenging enough. The School Committee should be focused on rebuilding trust and transparency with our families, and I urge them to extend the contract so they can do that critical work hand-in-hand with the Superintendent.”

John Barros, who served with Cassellius in Mayor Marty Walsh’s cabinet as the chief of economic development, praised her for raising expectations in the district, including moving the system to adopt the MassCore set of course requirements considered the foundation for college and career readiness. “I support the extension,” he said. “I think the superintendent has led us through an unprecedented year. I know she has worked tirelessly to do the best she can.”

Coleman, in his summary evaluation that rated her performance “proficient,” with a score of 3 on a 1-4 scale, praised Cassellius’s overall leadership. “Her efforts to build a powerful professional culture in the district that is centered around the needs of all of our children in the face of substantive barriers has been highly effective,” he wrote. “Obviously, not everything has gone well, but she has engaged in an iterative process of change that is moving us forward.”

While Cassellius got high marks from most committee members, Ernani DeAraujo, assigned her ratings of “developing” or “minimally effective” on five of the eight categories in the evaluation. He expressed particular concern on “Productivity, Organizing and Planning,” the one category where he deemed her work “minimally effective. DeAraujo even suggested that, if improvement isn’t seen in her management qualities, the mayor and school committee move to hire a manager to “run the operational aspects of BPS,” with the superintendent serving “under the manager as the strategic vision officer, which directly suits her greatest strengths.”  

Cassellius, a former Minnesota state education commissioner, has faced turnover of top central office staff, criticism from K-8 principals and high school leaders over her leadership style, and a  vote of “no confidence” in December from the Boston Teachers Union for what the union said was a lack of adequate safety provisions for teachers returning to classrooms. 

Meanwhile, results of an internal survey Cassellius commissioned of school leaders and central office staff, obtained last week by the Globe, suggested low morale was rampant among BPS staff. 

In the June 16 discussion by the school committee of Cassellius’s evaluation, Coleman prefaced his remarks with a declaration that no one would contest. “This has not been a normal year,” Coleman said. 

His evaluation ticked off all the reasons why, from the pandemic, departure of the city’s mayor, and turnover on the school committee to a state education department report, released in March 2020 just as the pandemic was taking hold, that offered a blistering critique of the district’s persistent shortcomings and threatened intervention from state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley if the system doesn’t show clear gains. 

Michael O’Neill, a veteran member of the school committee, emphasized the need for stability in the district, saying he has been part of the search process to hire two superintendents and has worked with three superintendents and several interim district leaders. Not extending Cassellius’s contract, he said during the June 16 school committee meeting, would be “a disservice to our community and our district in a period of uncertainty.” 

“We need a transition,” insists Wu. “What’s been happening in our school district and throughout the city, as we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, hast’ been urgently meeting the needs of far too many of our families.”

While some candidates say the looming election of a mayor argues against giving the superintendent an extension that would have her remain for the first two and half years of the next mayor’s administration, former state education secretary Paul Reville thinks the district needs stability precisely because of the changes in city government and the disruption of the pandemic. “It’s an unusually fraught moment in Boston politics and an important moment in our education future,” Reville said. “I think Brenda Cassellius has served the city well under very difficult circumstances, and in light of the transitions in leadership in the community, I believe we should stick with the superintendent and concentrate and focus on strategies to improve education outcomes as the city goes back to school.”

Meet the Author

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth’s Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston’s largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe’s City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for “The AIDS Quarterly,” a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for “Our Times,” a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth’s Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston’s largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe’s City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for “The AIDS Quarterly,” a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for “Our Times,” a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Cassellius herself, commenting during the discussion of her performance review at the June 16 meeting, seemed confident that she’ll be sticking around. 

“It marks a pivotal year of progress for our district even in a pandemic, and I’m proud of the role that I was able to play in leading it, and I know that it’s not going to be just one year, it’s going to be a multi-year journey toward achieving our shared goals,” she said. “I look forward to building on our progress in the months and years ahead.”

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