Thursday, June 13, 2024

Superintendent Victoria Greer at a March 18 meeting about poor district survey results. (Photo: Julia Levine)

Embattled Cambridge schools superintendent Victoria Greer was given 90 days’ notice on a 5-2 vote of the School Committee on Wednesday, news long awaited after the leader was reportedly asked to move on two months ago.

The votes in favor of Greer staying were Mayor E. Denise Simmons – who leads the committee – and member Richard Harding.

First came a motion from the mayor for Greer to stay through the end of her contact June 30, 2025, with only Harding and Simmons in favor; then came a motion from member Rachel Weinstein to grant 90 days’ notice, with only Harding and Simmons opposed. Greer will depart at the end of June, with the rest of her contract paid out as though she remained in office.

The motion for Greer to leave was a ratification of a vote taken in a closed-door session held April 30, Weinstein said.

The news comes 13 months ahead of the expected end of her contract, and she is expected to leave a year early; she is the second Cambridge Public Schools superintendent to leave before their contract is up after Kenneth Salim chose to leave in June 2021, two years before his contract was due to expire.

The superintendent signaled herself that a change was coming, saying during a discussion at a May 21 meeting of the School Committee that conversations about a cellphone policy were needed so “school administrators and the future administration are able to do their job diligently.” A request for comment was emailed Wednesday to her legal counsel, David Brody, of Sherin & Lodgen in Boston.

In the past, an emergency line of succession would go to the deputy superintendent, but the district doesn’t have one: The position was eliminated when Carolyn Turk retired in October after 21 years in the role, becoming educational liaison to Simmons.

A transition plan will be in place on or before June 24, or a week before Greer’s final day, the committee agreed. “It’s important to show the community that we will make sure that there is continued leadership of the Cambridge schools. It is our job and our responsibility,” Simmons said. “We are certainly committed and will work with great speed to appoint someone in the interim while we’re trying to find a full-time new superintendent. We do have a number of options, not limited to an internal appointment as well as looking outside the district.”

Harding said his opposition to Greer’s early departure included not wanting to “expend resources without getting any services.”

“I understand we’re making this transition, which is important for the district. I also believe that we could have done two things at the same time,” Harding said. “We’ve landed in a place where we’ve dealt with this with respect and dignity to all parties. However, I do believe that the contract language which would allowed her to stay would have been more beneficial than moving on in this critically important time in the lives of students.”

Dispiriting survey results

Slowing the announcement of Greer’s departure have been several closed-door School Committee sessions of “contract negotiations with nonunion personnel” – meaning Greer – discussed in public announcements, conversations with politically involved parents, school officials and media reports. By the time of the announcement on Wednesday, the schools community was essentially on a deathwatch, waiting for news all knew was inevitable.

Evaluations of the superintendent showed declining patience among committee members with her leadership, especially her approach to hiring, and a “school climate” survey taken in late 2023 of faculty, staff, families and students illustrated the problem: The district failed to land in the highest quintile in a single survey area compared with 2,000 districts nationwide.

Responses from district educators, administrators and staff expressed the most misery; the most unhappy school was Graham & Parks, where Greer’s hire for principal, Kathleen Smith, is the subject of an investigation like the one that preceded her departure from Newton Public Schools in 2019 – an issue that Greer’s hiring process either failed to turn up when hiring Smith in 2022 or didn’t consider a deterrence. The Newton district also settled a teacher lawsuit for $315,000 resulting from a complaint about Smith.

A resignation was expected as far back as March 19, when the committee delayed an expected evaluation of Greer to April 2. The mayor said it was because “we have three new members” who needed time to become familiar with issues surrounding the superintendent. When the date arrived, the committee opted out again, with Simmons saying members and the superintendent “jointly decided to hold the normative evaluation in abeyance while they exchange necessary documents pertinent to the evaluation.”

“We expect to provide more information in the coming days,” Simmons said.

More information came 57 days later.

Deteriorating evaluations

Greer’s tenure began as interim superintendent July 2021, the month after Salim’s departure, and was made permanent Feb. 2, 2022, backdated to Jan. 1. Her contact runs through June 30, 2025.

A 2022 evaluation of Greer deemed her “proficient,” while the 2023 evaluation by the committee aired some of the first official criticisms, ranking her overall performance as “needs improvement.” 

There were biting criticisms of Greer during public comment March 19 despite committee members delaying their own evaluation. Members of the community talked about about “botched hiring practices” and a lack of transparency and community engagement, items that speakers noted were listed as areas needing improvement in the previous evaluation. It also expressed concern that “buy-in from staff is lacking, and some feel mistreated. [There are] questions about the effectiveness of the superintendent’s management style in keeping, inspiring and working with the leadership team to improve our school system.” Those concerns were borne out by survey results, just as the G&P hiring went forward despite warnings in the evaluation about two earlier principal processes. Then came the hiring of a 25-year-old chief strategy officer with no experience in the field of education and falling short of the requirements in the district’s own job listing. His salary is between $153,329 and $169,193; the district is now looking to hire a “confidential secretary” for the chief strategy officer who would get a minimum salary of $76,000.

Eroding committee support

Support among the School Committee eroded to the point of a vote April 1 asking Greer to resign, reported by The Harvard Crimson based on a source “familiar with the situation” – seemingly a district parent who was accidentally allowed to listen in by Zoom videoconferencing software to what was suppose to be a closed-door meeting. By various accounts, the vote ran 5-2 against Greer.

Yet Greer did not announce her departure, and since the vote have come a series of “strategy sessions in preparation for contract negotiations with nonunion personnel” on April 30, May 1, May 6, May 10, May 15, May 22, Friday and Wednesday.

The caution is widely considered to be due to the fear of litigation from Greer, who won a $750,000 settlement from the town of Sharon in 2021. That was over a racial discrimination complaint filed with the state from the time she was superintendent there. Town officials said they would “rescind and expunge the vote not to renew Dr. Greer’s contract and agree that the contract has been terminated by mutually agreed-upon terms, including a payment to Dr. Greer of $750,000 from the town’s insurer.” 

The committee discussed on Wednesday when documents and minutes from the closed-door sessions would become public, with members Weinstein and Elizabeth Hudson calling for transparency. Simmons seemed unclear on the rules, and Harding suggesting release of documents wouldn’t be fast and would come with redactions of sensitive information. “Ultimately this is a personnel thing, even though it’s a contract,” Harding said.