School & District Management

Rivera Bows Out; Boston to Open New Hunt

By Catherine Gewertz — January 30, 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 last week, that relief evaporated in a cloud of anger and frustration as their chosen man backed out of the deal.

Manuel J. Rivera, seen in San Diego after accepting the 2006 Superintendent of the Year award from the American Association of School Administrators, won't be Boston's next superintendent.

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,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

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

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appoints the school committee, said he was “caught by complete surprise and a little frustrated” by the news. “We were counting on Manny to come and move our school system to the next level,” he said.

New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer is scheduled to announce this week that Mr. Rivera will become his top education policy adviser, a newly created post in which he will oversee education issues for the governor from the preschool level through the state college system.

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 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 the letter. Cutting his trip short, Mr. Menino hopped a flight for Boston the next day. Gov. Spitzer also called the mayor last week to tell him Mr. Rivera was coming to work for him. 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 schools committee 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,” she said last week.

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

Mr. Rivera said in an interview that he could not turn down the “attraction and excitement” of an opportunity to have such a broad and positive impact on education.

“My hope is that folks [in Boston] can understand this is a move to serve students … in other communities where there is, in my thinking, a greater need,” he said last week.

A Tough Spot

Both Mr. Menino and Ms. Reilinger portrayed the development as an unfortunate yet manageable setback. They said the city was well positioned to find an excellent superintendent, given the 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.

But despite city leaders’ polite public response, there was no shortage of anger in Boston.

One education insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said people were incensed by the turnabout: “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 one of 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 it also noted that the terms of his contract “remain unresolved,” and the Globe quoted a Rochester colleague of Mr. Rivera’s as saying he had become “fed up” with the contract negotiations. Ms. Reilinger said she believed most major provisions had been worked out.

Back to Work

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 school 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 last 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.”

Boston 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.

A version of this article appeared in the January 31, 2007 edition of Education Week as Rivera Bows Out; Boston to Open New Hunt

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