As the School Committee prepares to vote on a new superintendent Wednesday night, many educators, parents, and community activists are coalescing around one candidate: Brenda Cassellius, a former Minnesota commissioner of education whom they describe as a consensus builder with a strong commitment to remedying educational inequities.
In a system that has faced one public uproar after another, including former superintendent Tommy Chang’s abrupt resignation last summer, many supporters of Cassellius said she represents the greatest hope of healing bruised relationships between the School Department and its educators, parents, students, and community organizers.
“Her openness to engaging and responding to Boston Public School families was really refreshing,” said Travis Marshall, whose children attend Bates Elementary School and who is a member of Quality Education for Every Student, a grassroots parents group. “Those families are critical [to the system], and their voices have been shut out of decisions lately. It’s critical to have someone who came out in the beginning and said she wanted to build trust with the communities that BPS serves.”
Cassellius is one of three finalists vying for the top job. The other two are Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and Oscar Santos, president of Cathedral 7-12 High School. The new superintendent is expected to start in time for the next school year.
The seven-member School Committee has the ultimate say, but Mayor Martin J. Walsh carries considerable sway because he appoints the board. As of Tuesday afternoon, Walsh said he was still wrestling with his decision and was split between two finalists. He added that he expected he would make his decision Tuesday night or early Wednesday.
“I think all three could do a good job, actually,” Walsh said.
Walsh said he plans to talk with each School Committee member about his decision and has already sought advice from a few of them. He said there appears to be support for both Cassellius and Izquierdo on the committee.
More broadly, he said, various advocacy organizations he has been speaking with are largely supporting Cassellius, although some favor Izquierdo. Walsh said initially when the finalists were announced two weeks ago early buzz was trending toward Santos, noting he received a number of calls, text messages, and other communications supporting his candidacy.
The Boston Public Schools had been conducting an online public survey on the finalists to help the School Committee render its decision, but the department refused to publicly release the results Tuesday, even though the committee already had the information.
“The materials are under review by the legal office,” said Daniel O’Brien, a school spokesman, after asking The Boston Globe a day earlier to file a formal public records request for the results.
Meanwhile, Izquierdo won a key endorsement Tuesday from Latinos for Education, which sent a letter of support to Walsh.
“Marie Izquierdo has demonstrated that she has the best experience of the candidates in closing gaps in underperforming schools, as evidenced by her work in Miami Dade schools,” said Amanda Fernandez, the organization’s chief executive in a statement. “Her experience in a large urban district with similar qualities to Boston will allow her to support our English language learners and special education populations, who need more adequate supports.”
But Izquierdo also emerged as a lightening rod during the interview process, upsetting many parents, activists, and educators when she suggested the need for school closures, saying the district’s footprint was too large.
Support for Cassellius has been mounting since the three finalists were publicly interviewed last week, even as many parent and community activists derided the secrecy surrounding the search. Some of them thought all applicants should have been publicly revealed and also were miffed the finalists were announced during school vacation just before the start of Passover and Easter.
Cassellius won considerable good will by repeatedly stressing the importance of engaging educators, teachers, students, and community stakeholders in decisions that directly affected their schools. She noted the need to rebuild relationships before launching into big decisions.
“Dr. Cassellius has demonstrated through her work and in her espoused values that she can lead with authentic inclusion and that she is not afraid of having more seats at the table to bring about much needed change,” said Lisa Green of the Boston Coalition for Education Equity, whose members include parents, civil rights activists, and progressives, in a statement. “In her interview, she pledged to start by finding out from those directly involved what has worked and what has not worked, and to tap into their knowledge in crafting policies to improve the education of all BPS students.”
Many supporters were thrilled to see their views aligned with Cassellius on a number of issues, from transparency to addressing racial inequities in a system still haunted by the wounds of court-ordered busing in the 1970s. Some were also delighted to hear that Cassellius, who served eight years as an education commissioner, was apprehensive about relying too strongly on standardized tests to judge school performance.
At times during her interview, Cassellius also appeared to be politically skilled, her supporters said, noting that she came across as a populist leader — indicating that she would be out in the community and responsive to parents. Some added that they liked that she specifically stated that she would seek out the advice of veteran teachers in crafting a school district improvement plan.
“She’s primarily an educator — but she’s also a politician of sorts,” said Jane Miller of StartSmart BPS, a parent organization, in an e-mail. “As we know, Boston is a deeply political city. Many of the recent changes have been delivered from the top down without an effort to build consensus. While I didn’t think I could back a candidate who did not have Boston roots, and therefore might struggle to understand the complex history of our schools, her political experience may help her navigate the oversight of the mayor and the numerous community and parent organizations in order to move the district forward.”
Miller, like other supporters of Cassellius, said they appreciated her willingness to take a fresh look at current initiatives, such as the school system’s long-term school construction plan, instead of making decisions strictly based on the data at hand.
“She outshined the other two,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, a coalition of educator, students, parent, community, and social justice activists. “She was the only one who talked about young people in a holistic way.”