Saturday, April 20, 2024

102715i superintendent SalimKenneth Salim, currently superintendent in Weymouth, was chosen Tuesday to be the next superintendent of Cambridge Public Schools.

The School Committee vote on a motion to select Salim passed 6-1, with member Richard Harding opposed. Also in the running was Sergio Paez, a consultant to the Holyoke school district.

“Both of these candidates have risks,” Harding said. “We are setting up our future. Who would be most effective in the moment? If we are going to take a risk, I would go for Paez.”

Salim, who was hired as a first-time superintendent in Weymouth in 2012, is to begin work in Cambridge next summer. He will replace Superintendent Jeff Young, who is serving a one-year extension through the end of the school year. Previously Newton superintendent, he was hired by Cambridge in 2009.

Tough decision

Despite the vote – watched by several high-level administration staffers, attending their first search meeting to hear the identity of their next likely leader – it was apparently a difficult decision for many committee members. Each spoke for several minutes about the process and their decision-making. “Each [candidate] has great strengths, and weaknesses,” Mayor David Maher said. “As someone who has done this before, there is no doubt about it that we are taking a leap of faith. And in the end, we are asking the community to take the leap with us.”

Salim and Paez were both described as exceptional candidates, and as “the new generation of superintendents,” as vice chairman Fred Fantini said. “They have passion, integrity, they use data and have no-excuses culture in their communities. They both have powerful strategic plans. There are no distractions. They are quick to make changes when they need to. Both would do a great job.”

Members Kathleen Kelly, Fran Cronin and Patty Nolan lauded the candidates’ strong visions for their districts, dynamic personalities, hands-on approaches and many successful ventures even in districts with quite limited resources. “I actually felt somewhat guilty taking someone away from districts that have far greater challenges than we have in our district,” Kelly said of her site visits to Weymouth and Holyoke.

It was at the gut level that many seemed to make their final choice. Calling it a tough decision, especially after spending so much time in each candidate’s district and with his colleagues, Kelly said that she thought Salim was a better fit for Cambridge. “Paez may not be the right person to serve us in Cambridge at this time,” she said, “but I think he will find a district where he belongs.”

Member Mervan Osborne said that “given the right amount of experience, I think [Paez] could be a transformative superintendent, [but] as much as I wanted to say this is the guy, I sit before you with feeling there is an unresolved detail.”

In talking about Paez, Nolan had many compliments and some reservations. Alone in referring directly to the “data walls” that Holyoke teachers said Paez had made them post in classrooms with children’s names and scores, Nolan said, “They may have been overemphasized.” But she was concerned he had not had enough time in Holyoke to prove himself, and that much lower scores in Holyoke made it hard to know if he “was what we need in this community right now.”

Instead, Nolan said that she kept coming back to a story Salim told about teaching in Brighton and “seeing the low expectations set for students in the room across from him” and wanting to change that. She also told an anecdote of the deep compassion he showed a sick staff member. Acknowledging his relative youth and her concerns about his emphasis on technology and testing, she said, “I know it’s a risk, but it’s a risk I take happily and hopefully.”

Cronin, Maher and Fantini felt Salim’s ties to science and technology made him the stronger candidate. “Our community is so rich in [science, technology, engineering, arts and math] resources,” Maher said, “and I believe we have a person who can take those partnerships and move them to the next level.”

Harding’s reservations lay in how good a fit Salim would be in Cambridge. “Salim is well-rounded, he does bring particular depth and experience,” he said, “but I do have concerns about how he would fare in the very volatile climate of Cambridge. There are a lot of different constituencies you have to balance; I continue to wonder how well he will do in this environment.”

Maher said in the final comments of the evening that he thought Salim was the right person to “connect with all the diverse elements” of the city. “I’ve come to see Salim as a better fit for Cambridge at this juncture,” he said.

Search process praise

“We may have had an ambitious timeline,” Harding said in reference to the committee’s decision to run the search during the summer and the beginning of the school year, “but no process in this city has ever been more inclusive.”

“I feel really proud of the way we proceeded with this process,” member Fran Cronin said. “Every effort was made to include the community.” She noted the online survey and community meetings about desired qualities in a superintendent, targeted focus groups, 14 additional meetings added to the schedule after the school year started and the 19-person search interview committee made up of community, business, education and family members. Kathleen Kelly agreed, saying that the community meetings were such an important part of the process that “we should do that more often with many more issues.”

A third finalist, Framingham schools superintendent Stacy Scott, dropped out Oct. 19 after saying he’d been told the search committee was set on one of the other candidates. Meanwhile, parents were posting their own research on the finalists online, revealing what they worried were weaknesses in the candidates and the process focused on them.

“Was the process perfect?” Nolan asked. “No, but in my opinion it was better than the last search.” She praised the work of the search interview committee, who dedicated “a lot of time thoughtfully reviewing a wide range of candidates.”

Osborne talked of his pride for “the manner in which I feel my colleagues have come together in these final weeks – the honesty, depth, commitment, conversations and how much due diligence was done by this committee.” Fantini almost got emotional echoing those sentiments – particularly about the intense due diligence work of the committee on the final candidates.

In the past week there have been site visits (Nolan went to Weymouth; Fantini and Kelly went to Weymouth and Holyoke) and phone calls to colleagues, families, elected officials and state officials that went over some of the same ground as the parents, members said. “We uncovered a lot with both candidates,” Fantini said, “and 85 percent of that stuff was completely debunked.” On the rest, he and Osborne said, both candidates answered clearly and directly. “We’ve all taken a great deal of time and effort” with this, said Maher, and it ended with three “strong” candidates, and two finalists “who I feel both could be very strong superintendents.”

Next steps

Maher said that Wednesday morning he would contact an attorney to begin a negotiation process for Salim’s employment, setting up a closed-door meeting date “probably in 10 days or so” to discuss the contract parameters. The attorney will negotiate with Salim on a final contract.

Salim’s salary in Weymouth is $167,920, and his contract was to run through 2018. Young’s gross salary is $267,000; his starting salary in 2009 was $215,000. Both got retroactive raises during the past school year. Young gets 25 vacation days annually. Salim’s April contract negotiation with Weymouth also included increasing his annual vacation to 30 days from 25.