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The Curse of Rivera

The tangled tale of how Boston Public Schools twice lured and lost an education heavyweight—to New York of all places.

Walter Colley Images<br />
Walter Colley Images

When Rochester (N.Y.) Superintendent Manuel Rivera talked with Scholastic Administr@tor in December, it seemed as if his path to become Boston’s school superintendent had finally cleared. The Connecticut native had agreed to come close to home to lead the 58,000-student urban district.

It seemed a great match between the man who was chosen as AASA Superintendent of the Year in 2006 and the school district that won the Broad Foundation Prize for Urban Education last year.

Rivera even posed for a photo for this story wearing a Red Sox hat. At the time, nobody knew that the story contained one last twist. Just weeks later, four months after he was chosen to lead Boston schools and about five months before he was to begin his new job, Rivera jolted Boston by choosing to stay in New York. In late January, Rivera was named the deputy secretary of education for New York State and Boston education fans were left wondering if a new curse was on the horizon. (The original Boston “curse,” of course started when the Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920, ending with a World Series win in 2004.)

This saga started last summer when Boston Superintendent Thomas Payzant retired. It was the first major change for the school system in 11 years. The two people most responsible for picking Payzant—Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Boston School Committee Chair Elizabeth Reilinger—also led the most recent search.

When first contacted about the Boston opening, Rivera said he wasn’t interested. Yet he did meet with a search firm official to describe what attributes he thought were important for the next Boston chief. Later that summer, back in Boston to get an award from his alma mater, Brandeis University, Rivera agreed to meet with Boston officials. Still, he told them he wasn’t an applicant.

“There was so much to be done here,” Rivera said, referring to Rochester. “We were in the middle of updating our strategic plan and expanding the Rochester Children’s Zone. Boston needed a superintendent right away.”

Either undeterred or through a misunderstanding, the group named Rivera one of its five finalists. And here’s where it heats up—the Boston Globe printed the finalists’ names before the search group could tell Rivera he was on the list.

Facing inquiries back in Rochester, Rivera became annoyed. “I had a press conference here and said I wasn’t going anywhere.” Three of the other four candidates also publicly announced they were not seeking the Boston post.

This gaffe redirected Boston’s search. District COO Michael Contompasis was named interim superintendent and he later agreed to delay his retirement to serve for the entire school year.

What comes around...
Freed from the constraints of leaving Rochester immediately—and courted again by Boston search officials—Rivera began to reconsider the opening.

During this search, he was quickly tabbed Menino’s top choice for the job, according to reports in the Boston Globe. The extensive plan for public input into choosing the city’s next superintendent was scrapped, freeing Rivera from facing questions in Rochester. Rivera, who grew up in Connecticut not far from the Massachusetts border, still has family in the area. That pull, combined with what Rivera called “the challenge of going to another great city like Boston,” cemented the deal. In September, Rivera, 53, accepted the job, agreeing to start in July 2007.

Reaction was immediate. While acknowledging criticism about the lack of a public search, Reilinger said there had been “an overwhelmingly positive reaction to Manny Rivera.” Boston Teachers Union President Richard Stutman admitted Rivera was his “top choice” for the job. Back in Rochester, Board of Education President Domingo Garcia said, “We’re going to miss him terribly. Not only is he good at running the district and providing leadership, great vision and innovation, but he can close the achievement gap and consolidate best practices.”

Both Rivera and Reilinger saw the time delay as a blessing. “He gets to make the connection without being mired in the day-to-day challenges of a complex urban situation,” said Reilinger.

In December, Rivera said, “I’ve been wonderfully well received in Boston to date, by business leaders, teachers, parents and principals.” Talking about his long-term hopes for the city, he said, “There’s no reason I can’t be in Boston for seven years. Change needs that kind of stability. You’re not going to get that kind of change [without it]. The rest of the system just waits you out.”

He also praised Boston’s setup of mayor-school council control. “The accountability is very clear. That’s very helpful. [They have] school committee members who aren’t there for political reasons.”

Indeed, Rivera did make several trips to the city to meet with various groups and start laying the groundwork for his administration. He had yet to sign a contract, but that seemed somewhat of a formality. Even after the surprise announcement, Reilinger said Rivera’s contract had been 95 percent complete and the city was willing to pay him near $300,000 in the first year of a five-year deal.

So when Rivera sent a letter to Reilinger telling her of another possible job, city officials were so surprised that Menino flew back from the Mayor’s Conference in Washington, D.C. to address the issue.

Four days later, Rivera was standing next to new New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer publicly accepting the newly created position. “I couldn’t say no,” Rivera said at the New York news conference.

While it’s still not clear exactly what happened to turn the deal sour, it does appear that Rivera was forthcoming in his letter to Reilinger when he wrote, “this is not a dollars-and-cents issue,” according to a story in the Boston Globe.

Rivera was making about $212,000 in Rochester and was set to be one of the highest paid school superintendents in the country in Boston. His New York State job will pay him only $169,000. Proving that there is a thin line between the image of a model urban school district and a beleaguered one, Boston officials were back to square one in late January.

At an event on January 27, where Menino was to introduce Rivera to parents, students, and community leaders, he was instead criticized by a standing-room-only crowd of more than 250 people who had gathered to talk about the city’s achievement gap.

At press time, it appeared Boston would start a full third search to find a replacement. While Reilinger maintains that the district hopes to have a new superintendent in place by July, current superintendent Michael Contompasis told the Globe he would stay with the district “until a suitable replacement is found.”  @

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