Metro

Boston school committee picks Brenda Cassellius as new superintendent

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Brenda Cassellius.

The Boston School Committee Wednesday night selected former Minnesota education commissioner Brenda Cassellius as the system’s next superintendent, believing she was the best candidate to repair bruised relationships with the community and boost student achievement.

Five committee members voted for Cassellius, including Michael Loconto, the chair. They noted her long and varied career.

“We are happy to have someone who can be a uniter and bring the district forward,” Loconto said after the vote in an interview.

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Cassellius, 51, also is a finalist for state superintendent in Michigan. In a statement after the vote, she did not address the Michigan search and indicated that she is accepting the Boston superintendent job.

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“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.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh praised Cassellius for her “deep experience improving educational outcomes for students’’ and called the superintendent position “one of the most important and difficult jobs in the city.’’

“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,” Walsh said in a statement.

Two school committee members — Alexandra Oliver-Davila and Lorna Rivera — voted for Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

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“She has a proven track record of closing opportunity and achievement gaps,” said Oliver-Davila before the vote. “She is the bold candidate.”

In a follow-up vote to officially offer the job to Cassellius, Oliver-Davila flipped her support to her. Rivera abstained.

Three finalists were in the running for the top job: Cassellius; Izquierdo; and Oscar Santos, president of Cathedral 7-12 High School in Boston.

Heading into the vote, Cassellius had garnered the broadest support among parents, students, educators, and community activists — with the Citywide Parent Council saying Wednesday that it also believed Cassellius possessed the greatest hope of moving the school system forward and repairing damaged relationships with rank-and-file educators, parents, and others.

“Dr. Cassellius articulated an inspiring, yet practical, vision of how she has been able to make historic achievements in equity in her position as commissioner of education in Minnesota, named specific actions she would take to engage with parents, families, and community members, and provided clear evidence of her commitment to a robust public school system that seeks to provide a well-rounded education for all children,” said Jen Rose-Wood, a representative on the parent council, during testimony before the vote.

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Izquierdo received support from Latinos for Education, while Santos had fans among some school system insiders, including former superintendent Michael Contompasis.

While the School Committee has the final say on choosing a superintendent, Walsh carries considerable influence in the decision because he appoints the seven-member board, and the superintendent is a member of his Cabinet.

Boston has been looking for a new superintendent for almost a year. Former superintendent Tommy Chang resigned last June after a meeting with Walsh. The two had a rocky relationship at times as controversies erupted, from fallout over an IRS audit that found questionable spending with student activity funds to a failed proposal to change school start times.

His resignation created an awkward situation for the School Committee, which learned he was stepping down amid media inquiries, even though the board has sole authority to evaluate a superintendent and end his or her contract.

A public uproar ensued and intensified after Walsh announced that he would be recommending Laura Perille, a nonprofit executive with no experience working in public schools, to serve as interim superintendent. The School Committee later approved the appointment.

Perille was initially mum about whether she would seek the job permanently but then disclosed in October that she would not. By then, several parent, educator, and civil rights groups were publicly calling on her not to apply.

Walsh and school officials pledged to have the superintendent in place in time for the start of the 2019 school year.

The search — overseen by a panel of nearly a dozen people — resulted in a pool of 39 candidates who submitted resumes or other materials. About a dozen were interviewed privately before the finalists were announced two weeks ago.

The panel initially aimed for applicants to have at least five years experience as a superintendent — a bar that none of the finalists met.

Cassellius, who served eight years as Minnesota’s education commissioner, has had an extensive career that extends back nearly three decades, beginning in Minnesota as a paraprofessional and a teacher.

She spent a large chunk of her career in Minneapolis, working for a time under former Boston superintendent Carol Johnson when she was leading that system. Johnson lured Cassellius to Memphis when Johnson was superintendent there, putting her in charge of middle schools. Cassellius worked briefly as a superintendent in Minneapolis before being appointed commissioner.

She is expected to be like Johnson in at least one respect: a populist leader who will likely easily connect with teachers, students, and families.

In public testimony before the vote, several parents and community members voiced support for Cassellius.

“She is the only candidate who offered a concept of education that began with the child,” said Monty Neill, a Jamaica Plain resident and former executive director of FairTest, which works to end the misuse of standardized testing. “She understands the fundamental importance of community and family engagement . . . and how poverty impacts schooling.”

Some educators and a childhood friend endorsed Santos.

Elvis Henriquez, principal of the McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, recalled how in his youth he worked for Santos at a summer camp and he has served as a mentor ever since.

“He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself,” he said. “He made me believe I could go to college — not any college — BC.”

No one spoke on Izquierdo’s behalf.

After the vote, top officials across the city said they were looking forward to working with the new superintendent.

“We applaud her commitment to equity and appreciate her first-hand experience at all levels of education,” Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said in a statement. “The BTU welcomes her and looks forward to a long, collaborative relationship with Dr. Cassellius.”

She also said she was eager to work with Cassellius on a new teacher contract, which would replace an agreement that expired last year. Earlier during the meeting, Tang voiced frustration that contract talks were moving slowly.

Andrea Campbell, City Council president, said collaboration would be key for Cassellius to achieve success.

“While this is an important appointment, no one person can achieve equity in our school district and close persistent achievement and opportunity gaps alone,” Campbell said in a statement. “We can only make this progress by coming together as a city with students at the center of every decision we face.”

James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com.