NEW BEDFORD — To the surprise of School Committee members, New Bedford Superintendent Thomas Anderson was announced as the new head of East Hartford Public Schools, his hometown Connecticut district which enrolls half the students and employs half the staff of New Bedford.
“There were rumors,” said School Committee member Ross Grace, but said that beyond those rumors, he didn’t know Anderson was applying anywhere else after finishing as a finalist last month in Newton, the wealthy and high-performing district outside of Boston.
“I got an official email this morning announcing it and confirming it,” Grace said. Other School Committee members confirmed that they were surprised by the news and will likely have to find an interim superintendent to take over at the end of this year.
“It’s kind of late in the game, because most hiring for superintendents occurs now, it doesn’t begin now,” said School Committee member Chris Cotter about starting to look for a new head of schools. “Top-notch superintendents have already been offered positions.”
Anderson will depart New Bedford after school lets out in June, which will mark five years in the role since 2018. In a statement, Mayor Jon Mitchell, who also chairs the School Committee, confirmed the district will look into the possible appointment of an interim school chief before beginning the search for a permanent replacement.
“I’m grateful for Superintendent Anderson’s service over the past five years, especially his steady leadership of the district during the pandemic, when schooling was disrupted as never before. I also congratulate him on his return to his hometown,” Mitchell said in a statement.
Anderson’s new position comes with a salary of $230,000 — only slightly more than his $215,000 salary in New Bedford — in a three-year contract, according to an East Hartford spokesperson.
In his own emailed statement, Anderson thanked the New Bedford community and highlighted several programs.
“First, I want to express my sincere appreciation to the parents, students and staff in New Bedford. I am proud that during our time together New Bedford Public Schools has made significant growth in several areas including expanding academic programming to accelerate student learning with increased dual enrollment opportunities, Dual Language, a new magnet academy at New Bedford HS (enrolling for fall 2023), and the pending approval of the International Baccalaureate Program. We have raised overall expectations, made significant capital improvements, and increased academic achievement in many areas.”
In highlighting as-of-yet unlaunched initiatives, like the magnet and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, Anderson is bringing attention to projects he’s helped launch but will not be around to implement. School Committee members had mixed responses when asked if they’ll move forward with these and other proposals before they know the next chief of schools.
For academic initiatives like the IB and magnet programs, Cotter said the School Committee has enough information to implement them (IB offers advanced courses that follow international standards; the magnet program is an Anderson proposal for a special high-school track with community service and leadership training).
But other issues could stall out, including the hiring of three new administrative positions that were proposed at the last School Committee meeting, including a new school safety administrator that has received blowback. About these positions, Grace said, “I’m not in favor of voting for anything or supporting anything until we get the new superintendent in.” He added that when considering these positions, the School Committee needs to “slow the whole thing down.”
As the district reacts to the news of Anderson’s departure, the School Committee could convene before the week is out to start formulating a plan. Their collective surprise owes to the fact that East Hartford’s hiring process differed significantly from Newton’s.
Newton released resumes and essay responses of its finalists, as well as conducted publicly accessible interviews with their school board and a community-wide Q&A session. This process made Anderson’s application known far in advance of his final interview, including details like who he asked to write personal recommendations (Mayor Mitchell and former School Committee member Josh Amaral).
In East Hartford, however, the process was much quieter, and offered no advance knowledge of who was in consideration. “Interviews and specifics about the hiring process, including other candidates, are not part of the public record,” said a spokesperson of that district. Even in official school board presentations about the hiring process, no candidates or even timelines were divulged.
New Bedford now will undertake a hiring process of its own. Jack Livramiento has served on the School Committee for more than a decade, overseeing the hiring of the last two superintendents — Anderson and Pia Durkin. He said a careful process will be necessary, as New Bedford’s history has been to hire superintendents who quickly move on: “Even prior to my being elected there was a period of time they were changing every two to three years.”
“It’s a pity that we haven’t had the opportunity to hold onto a superintendent that will stay here for eight to 10 years,” Livramiento added. “I know this is the history of superintendent — the position isn’t permanent, especially in large school districts with so many fires that you have to handle on a regular basis.”
When asked about the most pressing issues that a new superintendent will have to contend with, Livramiento said working with students whose primary language is not English, a demographic that has rapidly increased in the last decade to over 40% of the student body.
Ross Grace highlighted issues for students with learning disabilities. “Children aren’t getting what they need,” he said. “That’s not the fault of the staff and teachers in the building. They’re overwhelmed, and our resources have to be going into the buildings.”
Each of these School Committee members congratulated Anderson and wished him well. “I want to commend Thomas on the great job he’s done for us. Our loss is East Hartford’s gain,” said Cotter.
As for specific predictions about who could step into the interim or permanent role, Cotter said there was plenty of local talent but offered one name: Andrew O’Leary. The current assistant superintendent for finance and operations is already certified to become a superintendent, but did not respond to comment before publication.
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