Dr. Carol Johnson, the superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, has come under withering criticism in recent weeks since a Boston Globe investigation detailed her gross mishandling of a personnel matter involving the then-headmaster of O’Bryant High, Rodney Peterson.
Johnson’s failure to properly discipline Peterson— who eventually admitted to sufficient facts in a criminal case of abuse against his wife— was compounded by her incredibly poor decision to praise Peterson’s job performance in reviews, despite her knowledge of the serious allegations lodged against him.
Some parents and even the Chairman of the Boston City Council’s Education committee, John Connolly, have called for Johnson to step down in the wake of these revelations. Almost all say that they’ve lost confidence in her based on this incident and other poor policy decisions made during her five years as superintendent.
Although we do not join their call for her ouster at this time, Johnson’s opponents have a strong argument. Their critique of her should not be dismissed — as some have done reflexively— as pure politicking. That charge does a disservice to both Johnson and her critics, most notably John Connolly, who has been a consistently attentive and thoughtful voice on school issues during his time on the council.
It takes courage for political leaders to stand up and say things they know could be unpopular. Connolly has been attacked by some Johnson loyalists— maliciously, we feel— for doing his job and saying what he believes. Those who have sought to diminish Connolly for speaking out because he happens to be a white councilman— and Johnson a black superintendent— ought to be ashamed.
That said, we think it would be best for Johnson to remain in place at this juncture. Her tenure, to date, has been a mix of solid achievements and false starts. But it is hard to imagine that another school board leader would have a far different track record in a city such as ours, in which the public system is beset with systemic problems that date back deep into the last century.
Those calling for Johnson’s removal have other reasonable complaints that must be addressed by her and the Menino administration for their leadership on schools to be viable moving forward. Any further lapse in her management of disciplinary matters for the BPS community on par with the Peterson scandal should result in her dismissal.
Managing a complex, politically-charged and sometime divisive urban school district is no easy job. We find Johnson’s willingness over the years to admit mistakes and reverse course — albeit under pressure— a positive, if imperfect, attribute. Right now, her attention needs to turn squarely to the preparation of the new academic year that looms just five weeks away.
Critically, the administration— led by both Johnson and Mayor Menino— must show that they can finalize and execute a feasible plan for reforming the school assignment plan, an exercise that began with a resolute call from the mayor himself last January. The clock is ticking quickly towards that plan’s deadline and Johnson and her team must get it right this time.
We encourage her critics to keep the heat on, to demand better from the administration and to expose problems when they come up. Meantime, we hope Johnson will live up to her potential and deliver the best possible results for the students and teachers under her watch. They deserve the best she can give.