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School Committee picks Cassellius as superintendent

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
School Committee picks Cassellius as superintendent
Brenda Cassellius answers questions at the Mildred Avenue K-8 school.

The Boston School Committee voted 5-2 on May 1 to select former Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius as the next superintendent of the Boston Public Schools.

Two School Committee members, Alexandra Oliver-Davila and Lorna Rivera, voted for Miami-Dade County School District Chief Academic Officer Marie Izquierdo. Oscar Santos, Cathedral High School’s head of school, received no votes. Cassellius was one of three finalists for the job who were selected from 39 original applicants.

Cassellius will succeed Interim Superintendent Laura Perille.

Mayor Martin Walsh praised the School Committee’s choice in a statement sent to news media.

“With the selection of Dr. Cassellius, we’re investing in a proven leader who knows what’s right for kids and understands the value of community voice,” he said.

In the days leading up to the vote, a number of local organizations expressed support for Cassellius, including the Boston Coalition for Educational Equity, Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST) and the Boston Education Justice Alliance. Latinos for Education, a Walton Foundation-funded national education reform organization, came out in support of Izquierdo.

Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang lauded the School Committee’s choice in a statement released after the body’s vote.

“We applaud her commitment to equity and appreciate her first-hand experience at all levels of education,” Tang’s statement reads. “The BTU welcomes her and looks forward to a long, collaborative relationship with Dr. Cassellius.”

Cassellius served as Minnesota’s commissioner of education for the last eight years, from 2010 until January of this year. She has also worked as a special education paraprofessional, classroom teacher, administrator and superintendent of the Minneapolis School District’s East Metro Integration District.

Challenges

In Boston, Cassellius take the helm at BPS as the district wrestles with several major challenges. The city is in the early phases of the mayor’s BuildBPS plan, which seeks to renovate existing schools and construct new ones with $1 billion in capital spending. Thus far, the plan has sparked controversy with the closure of the West Roxbury Education Complex, an aborted plan to close the McCormack middle school in Dorchester, which is now slated to merge with a high school, and the impending closure of the Jackson Mann school in Allston.

With persistent calls over the years from leadership within the school district and City Hall to “right-size” the district after declines in enrollment, more school closures could be on the horizon in the coming years.

The school closures, along with an attempt by the district to create earlier start times for elementary schools that was thwarted by angry parents and other BPS debacles, have led to calls for a return to an elected school committee. Activists say the current structure, in which committee members are appointed by the mayor, results in a lack of accountability to parents.

The mayor’s control over the school district could present another challenge for Cassellius. Walsh was widely seen as precipitating the departure of former superintendent Tommy Chang, who announced his resignation mid-way through his contract after a closed-door meeting with Walsh. School Committee members had no prior knowledge of Chang’s departure plans, nor had they any say in the mayor’s appointment of Interim Superintendent Laura Perille.

Cassellius may also wrestle with school funding challenges. In recent years, schools have struggled with budgets that haven’t kept pace with rising costs, forcing many to lay off staff and close programs. City officials point to declining state aid, which has dropped from one-third of the city’s education budget to less than 10 percent as charter schools claim an increasing share of state Chapter 70 funds in the city. The state’s outdated Chapter 70 school funding formula also has not accounted for increased costs of health care coverage for school staff and the costs of providing services for students with disabilities.

The city’s allocation for BPS has often failed to keep pace with funding for other city departments. While Walsh’s proposed $3.4 billion city budget would increase spending by 5 percent, the proposed BPS budget increases school spending by just 2 percent, although that figure could rise if the district settles ongoing contract negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union.

In a statement sent to news media by BPS officials, Cassellius said she looks forward to beginning work in Boston.

“I am humbled and honored to join the students, parents, educators and school leaders who are the heart of Boston Public Schools,” she said. “The deep commitment from so many partners and community stakeholders I’ve met has been evident throughout this process. I appreciate the rich diversity of Boston and look forward to getting to know and working alongside the entire community on behalf of our students and schools.”

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