School & District Management

Boston Superintendent’s Resignation: What’s Behind Tommy Chang’s Departure?

By Denisa R. Superville — June 25, 2018 4 min read
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Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang announced his resignation on Friday, one day after a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the district alleging that the district had shared information with law enforcement officials that may have played a role in a student’s deportation.

But Boston Mayor Marty Walsh indicated to the Bo

ston Globe on Friday that the departure was related to Chang’s management and the need for faster gains in Boston Public Schools. And on Monday Chang denied that the district had shared information with federal immigration officials that led to a student’s arrest.

“We need a long-term education leader with a proven record in management who can gain the confidence of the community on the strategic vision for the district,” Walsh told the Boston Globe in a statement.

Both Chang and Walsh told the paper that they agreed to part ways, and Chang is in the process of negotiating his separation from the district.

Chang was an instructional superintendent in Los Angeles when he was tapped in 2015 to lead the nearly 57,000-student district. Although he had never led an urban district, he was given a five-year contract—an unusually long one for a big-city schools chief.

In his parting letter, Chang cited the district’s improvement on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is also known as the Nation’s Report Card. He touted a slight increase in graduation rates under his tenure—from 70.7 percent in 2015 to 72.7 last year; a decrease in suspensions; the expansion of extended learning time in 57 schools; and the launch of what he called the first-in-the-nation Haitian Creole Pre-K dual-language program. The district, he said, now has more high-performing schools that it has had in its history.

“That’s a credit to our teachers, principals, staff, and families—and I’m proud of it,” he wrote. “But no one can or should be satisfied with where we stand, and with some crucial building blocks in place, the time will never be better for the next leader to take the helm.”

Chang also said that, “we fought courageously for our immigrant students.”

The lawsuit against Chang, the district, the school police department, and the city, stemmed from civil rights and student advocacy groups' efforts to find out how the district shares information with law enforcement agencies, according to the Boston Globe.

It stems from a case in which a student at East Boston High School was deported, according to the Boston Globe. The student, who came from El Salvador in 2014 at age 17, had been involved in an altercation at the high school. Information from a school incident report from the incident showed up in the student’s deportation proceedings, according to the Boston Globe. The district has denied the group’s requests since December to find information about how the district shares information with law enforcement.

On Monday, Chang took the unusual step of commenting on the lawsuit and pushing back against the argument that the district shared information with immigration officials that led to the student’s arrest. (Districts generally avoid commenting on pending litigation.)

“That claim is false,” said Chang, an immigrant from Taiwan, who came to the U.S. as a six-year-old not knowing a word of English. “BPS would never give student information to ICE, unless required under law. It also fundamentally contradicts what we stand for and believe as an organization, and what thousands of our employees work in good faith to do every day. And it contradicts what I have set forth as our direction.

“The City of Boston and the Boston Public Schools (BPS) want all of our immigrant families to know that, no matter their immigration status, they are valued members of our community,” he continued. “The U.S. Constitution protects the right of every child in this country to an education—regardless of their immigration status. We take that protection enormously seriously.”

BPS will continue to welcome and support immigrant students in our schools, and honor their constitutional right to a free and uninterrupted public school education. We always follow state and federal student records laws in sharing any student information. It would be against BPS policy to provide any student records to ICE, and BPS does not have a practice of doing so.”

Chang’s quick departure is a change of pace for Boston, where superintendents tend to have relatively long tenures. (The district is under mayoral control.)

Boston’s last full-time superintendent, Carol Johnson, served from 2007 to 2013. John McDonough, the district’s longtime chief financial officer, took over as interim superintendent and led the district through 2015, until Chang arrived. Before Johnson, Thomas W. Payzant, led the system for nearly 11 years.

The Boston Globe reports that Chang never really gelled in Boston, didn’t build strong ties with the community, and did not effectively communicate his vision to the city. In his last two reviews he was told that he needed to improve in the areas of family and community engagement, according to the Boston Globe. And he was not helped by missteps, including keeping mum for months about an IRS audit of the school district that found that schools awarded stipends to employees using school activity accounts.

“He fell short of really building meaningful relationships,” Annissa Essaibi-George, a member of the City Council, told the Globe. “You can articulate a vision, but it proves to be impossible to actually effect any change because there wasn’t that relationship between him and the community.”

Photo caption: Tommy Chang, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools. File photo. Steve Gaffney 2013.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.