In the last seven years, Boston has gone through three school superintendent searches. Both in the 2015 and 2019 searches, competent Hispanic finalists were passed over. And in the current search, which produced two finalists, it looks like the incoming leader won’t be Hispanic either.
Keep in mind that 44 percent of Boston Public Schools students are Latinx. The second largest demographic? Black students, with a 32 percent share of enrollment. But the incoming superintendent won’t be Black either.
Instead, the Boston School Committee is poised to choose between Mary Skipper, currently the Somerville superintendent, who is white, and Tommy Welch, a BPS regional superintendent who is Asian American.
Representation matters — even more so in a school system where so much work needs to be done to improve the educational outcomes of Black and brown students. But representation is not the only thing that matters.
Still, many in the Black and Latino communities are frustrated by the lack of diversity among the final candidates ― particularly because of the four initial finalists, a Black woman and a Latina dropped out at the 11th hour.
Then Friday morning came the the news that state education commissioner Jeff Riley is recommending that BPS be declared underperforming, which would give him the authority to appoint an independent monitor to supervise the district’s turnaround efforts. The news comes after Riley and BPS failed to reach an agreement on a systemic improvement plan for the district.
The reasons why the two candidates of color dropped out are unclear. At least one apparently withdrew for personal reasons. There’s a lot of speculation, including the persistent rumor circulating that Skipper, a well-regarded administrator, is the perceived favorite of Mayor Michelle Wu, though Wu has denied it.
The discontent with the process is such that some people are calling on Wu and the School Committee to restart the search. Two School Committee members also expressed concern about the lack of diversity of the finalists.
In retrospect, the short timeline to find a new leader seems problematic. It’s no surprise that the idea of resetting the search is gaining momentum, and Riley’s move on Friday might also make some people wary of moving forward. Indeed, the School Committee could very well decide that neither Skipper nor Welch is the best choice. But while going back to the drawing board may be ideal in theory, it’s not a realistic outcome. And Riley’s intervention doesn’t necessarily complicate hiring a new superintendent now, since BPS would still be under control of the superintendent and the school committee.
Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College and cochair of the superintendent search committee, said in an interview that the committee debated when the two women dropped out. “But if we had drawn out the timeline, there was the danger of losing the two [remaining] finalists as candidates,” Eddinger said.
Eddinger said that the initial pool of 34 applicants was 38 percent Black; 15 percent Hispanic; 3 percent Asian American, and 26 percent white. Ten of the candidates were bilingual; eight spoke Spanish, one Haitian Creole, and one Korean.
“I am disappointed there is no Latino or Black [finalist]. But do [Skipper and Welch] have the capacity to be good superintendents? I’d say yes,” Eddinger said.
It’s an embarrassment that Boston has never had a Hispanic superintendent. To be clear, I’m not arguing for representation for the sake of representation; that’s meaningless. But the powerful impact that people of color in leadership roles can have on students of color can’t be ignored. And a Latinx individual who speaks Spanish is more likely to relate better to the needs and challenges of Hispanic families and students than a white leader.
But are Latinos the only ones capable of doing that? Of course not.
Which brings me to Welch, who is part Japanese and part white. Welch is a BPS parent, lives in East Boston, and speaks Spanish. Because of that, he has formed meaningful connections with Latinx parents. Welch came to BPS in 2015 from Los Angeles, where he focused on English learners and special education inclusion, two key turnaround areas at BPS.
“He’s very attuned to the local Latino community,” said Alex Oliver-Dávila, a former Boston School Committee member. Elsa Flores, a BPS parent from Eastie, told me in an interview in Spanish that she prefers Welch. She is originally from El Salvador and is a member of the parent group Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network.
Flores said that Welch has always been responsive and willing to help when she has brought concerns related to schools to him. Flores typically speaks with him in Spanish. “Most of our schools have improved since Tommy was put in charge of our region. He knows and understands our culture even though he isn’t Latino.”
Skipper may be the front-runner, but we shouldn’t discount Welch as a compelling candidate. It’s not mutually exclusive to feel frustrated that Boston has missed out yet again on having its first Hispanic superintendent while at the same time recognizing that Welch’s inroads and trust within the Latino community also matter.