School & District Management

Rivera Backs Out, Leaving Boston in Hunt For Superintendent

By Catherine Gewertz — January 25, 2007 4 min read
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Boston leaders heaved a sigh of relief four months ago when they picked a new schools chief, ending one of the nation’s thorniest superintendent searches. But this week, that relief evaporated in a cloud of anger and frustration as their chosen man backed out of the deal.

BRIC ARCHIVE

The news that Manuel J. Rivera, the nationally lauded superintendent of the 34,000-student Rochester, N.Y., schools, will not take the helm in Boston in July as planned left city and school leaders reeling. It further delays a transition that is already a year behind schedule, and adds yet another difficult turn to a search that nearly fell apart once already. (“Schools Chief Search Off Schedule in Boston,” July 26, 2006 and “Rochester, N.Y., Schools Chief Picked for Top Job in Boston,” October 4, 2006.)

“We are surprised and very disappointed to get this news at this late stage in the process,” Boston Schools Committee chairwoman Elizabeth Reilinger said.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appoints the school committee, said in an interview that he was “caught by complete surprise and a little frustrated” by the news.

Mr. Menino said New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer called him this week to say that Mr. Rivera was taking a job as a high-level education adviser in his administration. Mr. Spitzer’s spokesman, Brad Maione, would say only that the governor would make an education announcement on Jan. 29. Mr. Rivera said through a spokeswoman that he could not discuss his arrangements until then.

Ms. Reilinger received a letter from Mr. Rivera via Federal Express on Jan. 23, saying he had received “an unexpected and very attractive” offer elsewhere, so it was “unlikely” he would come to Boston, but he would make a final decision within a week. Later that day, Mr. Menino’s education adviser called the mayor at a conference in Washington to tell him about Mr. Rivera’s letter. Cutting his trip short, Mr. Menino hopped a flight for Boston the next day.

Mr. Rivera did not call the mayor. By the time Mr. Rivera returned Ms. Reilinger’s call, the day after his letter had arrived, the school board had decided that it “would be in Boston’s best interest to release him” from his agreement to come to Boston “so we can move on and find the kind of star leader we’re looking for,” the committee chairwoman said.

“We want someone who is 150 percent committed” to the Boston job, she added.

Both Mr. Menino and Ms. Reilinger portrayed the development as an unfortunate yet manageable setback, saying the district was well positioned to find an excellent superintendent, given its decade of improvement under Thomas W. Payzant, who retired last June, and the strong interim leadership being provided by Michael Contompasis, a 40-year veteran who has agreed to lead the 57,000-student district until a replacement is found.

‘Poor Form’

But underneath the mannered public response was another layer of reaction.

“People are pissed,” said one education insider. “We’ve gone through a long, hard process and done everything but kiss his behind to get him to come here.”

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, which advocates for 66 of the country’s largest school districts, said he thought Boston leaders were entitled to be angry, adding that it showed “poor form and a lack of class” for Mr. Rivera to accept the offer and back out months later. But he agreed that the district’s strong leadership will enable it to weather the reversal better than most.

Mr. Rivera was still negotiating a contract with Boston that would have made him among the nation’s best-compensated superintendents, Ms. Reilinger said. The Boston Globe reported that his annual pay and benefits would have topped $300,000. His letter assured Ms. Reilinger that his withdrawal was “not a ‘dollars and cents’ decision to take a Superintendent’s position with a different school system.” But the Globe quoted a Rochester colleague of Mr. Rivera’s as saying he had become “fed up” with the contract negotiations. And Mr. Rivera noted in his letter that the terms of his contract “remain unresolved.”

Ms. Reilinger said she believed that most major issues had been worked out.

The district will now resume working with Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, the California-based executive-search firm it used to identify candidates for the first round of the search, Ms. Reilinger said. In addition to identifying new candidates, the committee plans also to check with those from the first round to gauge their availability or interest, she said.

Last summer, all but one of five educators being considered for the Boston job backed out or insisted they never formally agreed to be candidates after they were identified as finalists by the Globe. Nancy J. McGinley, who remained after the others had dropped out, said this week that she is not inclined to jump back into that pool.

“That was a protracted period of being put on hold with little feedback,” said Ms. McGinley, who is the chief academic officer for the 44,000-student Charleston County, S.C., district. “I’m still recovering from the exhaustion.”

The district had sought to keep contenders’ names private until later in the process, then allow community members to meet and express their thoughts about the finalists. In the next phase of the search, names will be kept private until a choice is made, Ms. Reilinger said.

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