Sunday, July 14, 2024

Skyler Nash is chief strategy officer of Cambridge Public Schools. (Photo: Skyler Nash via LinkedIn)

Community members are criticizing the Cambridge school district’s hiring of a highly paid chief strategy officer who is 25 years old, graduated from college two years ago and has no experience in the field of education – making him unqualified under Cambridge Public Schools’ own stated requirements for the role.

Skyler Nash began work Dec. 11 with the district as a senior-level adviser to superintendent Victoria Greer, helping her establish and set goals for the district, monitoring and supporting staff-led projects and serving as her liaison in meetings with the public, parents, deputy city manager and more. He will be one of the people held most responsible for the district’s upcoming educational initiatives and decisions as a district.

Before this job, Nash had most recently served as chief of staff for the Minneapolis Police Department, helping it implement antiracist policies after the death of George Floyd.

The district’s posted job description for chief strategy officer required that applicants have a master’s degree in a related field and offered a salary from $176,071 to $189,852; the highest degree Nash has achieved is a bachelor’s degree. The posting went through three iterations with decreasingly strict requirements as no suitable candidates were found, officials have explained.

The district had the application portal open for four weeks and determined that Nash was their best candidate, with a salary modified to be between $153,329 and $169,193.

“We discussed each candidate and it was evident that Mr. Nash was the preferred candidate,” said Sujata Wycoff, the district’s director of communications. “Mr. Nash has been a leader with issues related to equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Nash balanced his studies at the University of Vermont with two jobs, according to his LinkedIn page and other publicly available records. working as a public policy and research analyst in the City of Burlington Racial Equity Inclusion and Belonging Department as well as leading Next Generation Justice, a nonprofit working with prosecutors to create more equitable policies. In 2020, he managed the successful campaign of Kesha Ram, who became Vermont’s first state senator of color.

According to the district website’s “rewards and benefits” page, starting salaries for Cambridge educators are $55,000. If a teacher has a master’s degree or higher and have at least 10 years of experience as a Cambridge teacher, the salary range rises to between $95,000 to $106,000.

Deputy superintendent role is gone

Nash’s hiring follows the retirement of Carolyn Turk in October from her 21-year role as deputy superintendent, capping 46 years in the district that began with a job teaching at the Tobin School and later becoming the school’s assistant principal. She has a bachelor’s degree in education from Boston State College and master’s in educational leadership, management and policy from Seton Hall University; after superintendent Thomas Fowler-Finn left in 2008, Turk filled in as interim leader of the district before Jeffrey Young arrived the next year.

The district said Turk’s role was being retired in honor of her.

While state law requires that the School Committee review the hiring of deputies and assistants at the superintendent level, the committee has no such role in hiring at the chief-of-staff level or for a chief strategy officer such as Nash.

Parents taken by surprise

Parents and teachers in an online forum said they were “alarmed” by the hiring and found it “disturbing” and “very concerning,” and that they were “distressed” by it. (One member of the forum said Nash “could be a great hire. He has some great experience that seems like he could be a good fit for Cambridge.”)

There was an effort to rally comment at a Nov. 21 committee meeting, but the hiring was not on the meeting’s agenda and the comment was not allowed.

Shawdee Eshghi, of Walden Street, spoke long enough to frame concerns about Nash’s hiring as a problem of community engagement. “In this particular hire, I think is an example of how greater community engagement could have served the needs of our district better. The individual doesn’t have any educational experience,” Eshghi said.

“I would like to know how the community would have reacted to this specific hire, who came from the Minneapolis Police Department. If that was publicly known, if there was a committee that was made comprised of caregivers and community members, we could have discussed whether or not that was a good fit for our district,” Eshghi said. “In general, I would wonder if the community would support more administrative positions like this, as opposed to using this kind of financial allocation towards initiatives that have more of a direct impact on student outcomes. This is an example of how the superintendent’s office has not been utilizing community and caregiver input and feedback in a way that is detrimental.”

Hires and priorities in question

Eshghi, a parent of a child at the Graham & Parks School, said separately that she has reservations about the amount that the superintendent is spending on administrative positions. “Does she think that’s the best use of money right now?” Eshghi asked. “Why is this superintendent hiring so many administrative people, when that money could be better spent on field trips, teachers, paraprofessionals and interns?”

There have been several eyebrow-raising hires and appointments by Greer; most prominent is Kathleen Smith, a principal whose contract is up for renewal at Graham & Parks but is being investigated by the school district after complaints from the community and accounts of a “toxic work environment” at a previous workplace.

Students also expressed surprise at Nash’s hiring.

“In administration, I feel like a lot of them at least should have some educational experience on the ground floor, actually working with teachers,” student Charity Rounds said. “The people who actually matter are the teachers, so they should be paid at least close to that amount, if not more.”

A version of this story appeared on The Register Forum of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School. This version was posted Feb. 10, 2024, but backdated to match the posting of the original. Alex Bowers contributed to this report.