After three years, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will step down Thursday. Her departure is the latest in a decade of turnover in the role, making four superintendents in the past 10 years. After announcing finalists last week, the School Committee will vote on Boston’s new superintendent on Wednesday.

Cassellius joined Boston Public Radio Tuesday to reflect on her tenure as superintendent and the state of Boston Public Schools, warning against staffing shortages and a need for responsible investment.

State education commissioner Jeffrey Riley and Mayor Michelle Wu announced an agreement Monday night for the city to make immediate improvements to its schools, as well as a pledge of $10 million in support from the state. The district will avoid the label as “underperforming” as Riley had initially recommended on Friday. The decision follows debates over putting schools under receivership, a move Wu has opposed.

“I have always said that it takes all hands on deck to get this work done,” Cassellius said. “It is some of the hardest and most worthiest work that we could do to improve outcomes for children, and so I welcomed Commissioner Riley's support over these past three years and look forward to the next superintendent really digging in even more with this new agreement.”

A state report in May described Boston Public Schools as struggling, and criticized the district for releasing inaccurate data on school bus on-time arrival rates, bathroom renovation rates and graduation and dropout rates.

In response to questions about graduation numbers, Cassellius said the issue is failing to document when students move away, more than students dropping out.

“I think that that's misunderstood,” she said. “It wasn't that the principals didn't know that that child supposedly, you know, went back to the Dominican Republic [for example] — they knew that the family moved, they just couldn't secure the documentation for the auditor.”

Cassellius pointed to the need for a risk management office to fix data issues, a hire she said she’d hoped to make during her time in Boston Public Schools but she ultimately redirected staffing to respond to the pandemic. “That's the key piece to being a continuously improving organization so that you identify risk, you then put in place controls, you monitor those controls, so that you continuously improve, so you do find these things,” she said.

Going forward, she thinks the district needs more money, and needs to spend it properly.

“I think over many decades, there's been a disinvestment in public schools, not just here in Boston, but across the nation,” Cassellius said. “You have to have amenities that are worthy of the children who are in there and tools for educators to actually get their jobs done and supports for families and for children, and I think for far too long, those things have not been in place for Boston, which then makes the central office have to scurry around to try to Band-Aid this or Band-Aid that.”

"I am very, very worried about the pandemic and what happened in terms of teacher exhaustion, overall staff and employee exhaustion during this time."
Brenda Cassellius, outgoing superintendent of Boston Public Schools

The outgoing superintendent praised former Mayor Marty Walsh’s investment into schools, as well as Wu’s $2 billion plan to rebuild Boston schools in the next six years. Cassellius pressed the importance of accountable spending.

“I believe that money matters, and I do believe that it also matters how you use it,” she said. “We need to be responsible with that money. We need to be responsible with our data and transparent, and I think that getting the money to those students who are most vulnerable is so, so critically important.”

In the coming years, Cassellius thinks solving staffing crises will be vital — a problem plaguing school districts across the country. In January, Cassellius herself substitute-taught a fourth-grade class during the omicron surge as schools struggled to find teachers. Now on her way out, she thinks staffing will be a core issue for her successor.

“We need a whole entire campaign and hands on deck to ensure that there's a teacher in every single one of our school classrooms next year, that we have a bus driver to drive every bus, that we have a cook to cook our food,” she said. “I am very, very worried about the pandemic and what happened in terms of teacher exhaustion, overall staff and employee exhaustion during this time.”

She also thinks the new superintendent should focus on growing and improving walkable schools. “Walkable schools are absolutely incredible when you can guarantee that the quality of the school in their neighborhood is excellent, and so that's what we have to show to parents for them to trust us into sending the child to the school that’s right in their neighborhood,” she said. “That is something that the next superintendent is really going to have to take on.”

Cassellius said the support of the mayor on these issues will be key. “When you have those intractable, longstanding, difficult things that you have to do, you really need to rally the whole entire city around that, and that's when the mayor can be most useful,” she said. “There's a lot of tough calls that need to be made in the Boston public schools, and so having a mayor stand up for you and get your back I think is going to be critical in the next couple of years.”

The School Committee will vote Wednesday between Dr. Tommy Welch, assistant superintendent in Boston, and Mary Skipper, Somerville Superintendent and former BPS administrator. The process has come under fire for lacking Black and Latino finalists; Welch is Asian American and Skipper is white. Two potential finalists, a Black woman and a Latina woman, dropped out.

“I do worry about all of those racial politics,” Cassellius said. “If you didn't, then you really wouldn't be honest, right? ... It'll be important that they go outside of their comfort zone and that they go in to communities that maybe they're not as familiar with and get to know them right away.”

Although Cassellius felt as though she was able to get a sense of Boston schools as an outsider, she said she thinks that both finalists already living in the city will be an asset. As for her, she’s returning to Minnesota as she figures out what’s next.

“I've had a couple of inquiries, but I'm going to take some time to discern where God wants my path to lead, and I will follow that path,” she said. “I'm sure it's going to be making a difference for children some way."