Bedford’s next superintendent of schools did not follow the traditional path to the summit of local educational leadership.
But the Bedford School Committee on Tuesday night was unanimous that Cliff Chuang’s strengths as an innovator, collaborator, and policy expert will more than offset any challenges integrating into the district structure.
On July 1, Chuang will succeed Bedford Public School Superintendent Philip Conrad, who is retiring. The new superintendent has worked for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) almost continually since moving on from classroom teaching in 2004. Currently, he is senior associate commissioner for educational options.
Chuang, 48, said by email Wednesday afternoon, “I am humbled and honored to be selected to serve as Bedford’s next school superintendent. I am also grateful to all of the students, families, educators, and community members from Bedford, Boston, and Hanscom Air Force Base who took the time to meet with me and to provide feedback throughout the process. Bedford is a special community, and I am excited to get to work.”
Tuesday night’s meeting was a Zoom webinar, announced a day earlier because of concerns about dangerous weather-related travel.
Following confirmation of reference checks, the discussion about the candidates continued for about an hour. School committee members followed their usual rotation of comments – one at a time.
They all had positive observations about all four finalists. But as each member shared initial preferences, it soon became apparent that the choice would be between Chuang and Dr. June Saba-Maguire, an assistant superintendent in the Brockton schools.
The other two finalists were Dr. Portia Bonner, a former superintendent in New Bedford and East Haven, CT, and Dr. Matthew Janger, principal of Arlington High School.
Finally, committee Chair Brad Morrison asked for a straw vote. Sarah Scoville, who co-chaired the search committee with Morrison, was emphatically for Chuang. Dan Brosgol deferred, and Sheila Mehta-Green, after a pause, made it 2-0 for Chuang. Ann Guay’s vote made it a majority, and Morrison and Brosgol added their support. The vote was then formalized.
Scoville indicated her preference for Chuang from the start. She cited his “deep experience with important stakeholders to our community – military dependents and METCO students – at the state level.
“We often talk in Bedford about innovation, educating our learners for future jobs. I believe in moving the district to become more committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, social-emotional learning, and academic excellence. I believe Mr. Chuang can move us forward.”
Brosgol, Mehta-Green, and Guay all spoke of envisioning a path forward for either Chuang or Saba-Maguire.
“The community, I believe, is asking us for change,” Brosgol observed. He explained that people are “looking for a change agent to lead us out of Covid-generated inertia, who can come in and take us to the next level with a fresh look at what we are doing.” He asked, “Who will bring the freshest eyes with the most robust set of skills? I think they would both do an excellent job.”
“Whatever change there is has to be balanced with continuity and getting people on board,” said Morrison. “We need the skills to set goals and get people to move toward them. I agree both people can do that.”
Brosgol noted that Chuang’s 90-minute interview with the committee was “astonishingly good.” He reported, “I have talked to people constantly for the better part of a month and I don’t think there’s a clear consensus from the public.” Indeed, he added, for a town of this size, there weren’t a lot of responses. “Most folks are happy to trust us to make the right decision.”
Mehta-Green said Saba-Maguire’s path from teacher to assistant superintendent in Brockton has been “very traditional, and that is commendable, especially as over a couple of years of pandemic put all of us into a situation that none of us knew quite how to deal with. And now we are looking for who that next person is to lead us so we are no longer in a reactive mode.”
The next superintendent “needs to absolutely support the teachers,” and also be “empathetic to the parent and student community.” Although Chuang has not followed the traditional path, “I believe he would be up to that challenge.” She said Saba-Maguire’s experience as an elementary school principal was valuable, as was Chuang’s nine years as a teacher. “He understands the challenges teachers face.”
Mehta-Green also said Chuang “has shown through his career that he has been able to start new initiatives, trying to understand if something needs to be new or enhanced, and get all contributing parties to work together. There is a track record of working collaboratively.”
Guay, attending her final meeting before retiring after 10 years on the committee, noted Chuang’s extensive preparation for the full day of interviews and conversations with local stakeholders, such as reviewing the budget, speaking with residents he knows, and watching recorded committee meetings. “He appeared to be very deliberate in applying for this position,” she said.
Guay applauded Chuang’s policy work at DESE (“policy is where my interests lie.”) “He has a great deal of exposure to programs important to us.” She acknowledged that she had concerns about choosing someone whose main focus is policy, but she found that Chuang “is really good at bringing stakeholders along,” and his initiatives at the agency are not imposed.
She also cited Chuang’s response to a question stating that academic rigor is consistent with diversity, equity, and inclusion; tension between them is “a false dichotomy.” Saba-Maguire’s experience in a large district would benefit Bedford. Guay said, “She has seen everything.”
Sarah McGinley, the committee’s non-voting member who represents Hanscom Air Force Base households, was also invited to offer her views. Although she didn’t specify a preference, McGinley noted that Chuang “was especially strong in answering questions on obstacles facing military families.” She said she was “also impressed by his willingness to take a stand on elementary reading instruction.”
McGinley is expected to join the committee as a voting member for its next regularly-scheduled meeting on March 14, as she and Scoville are the only candidates for two open seats in the Town Election coming up on Saturday, March 11.
Morrison spoke last, thanking “everybody, particularly our students, for making Bedford look really good.” He continued, “From the beginning of this process, I have viewed my role as trying to find the wisdom of the group. I’m still in that role.”
However, he continued, although he can visualize any of the finalists in the superintendent’s chair, “I’m convinced that Mr. Chuang would bring aspirational standards to Bedford.” He defined the challenge for Chuang over the next three to five years as balancing “his enthusiasm and leadership that makes people he’s working with want to join him. I think he is up to that challenge.
“The person that I think will bring the most passion and opportunity and leadership to Bedford is Cliff Chuang,” he asserted. “I believe he is the kind of person who will do what it takes to be successful in his position. Of all the challenges he will face, he has the skills and capabilities to overcome them.”
Morrison added that he is confident “in the ability of our teachers and leadership to absorb a good leader as much as it is on the other person to make that happen. It does seem that Mr. Chuang could have some work to do to help people understand who he is and where he is coming from. I think there are people who can help him with that.”
Chuang started his career teaching secondary mathematics and science in Boston. He holds an undergraduate degree in mathematics from Harvard University and a M.Ed. in secondary mathematics teaching from Boston College.
Chuang leads DESE’s Center for Educational Options, which supports charter, virtual, and other redesigned school models; career technical education; adult basic education; early learning; out-of-school time programs; and METCO.
He also manages the department’s student and family support initiatives and is a leader in DESE’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism work and efforts to elevate student and family voices.
Chuang is an adjunct faculty member at the Boston University Wheelock College of Education & Human Development and serves as treasurer on the board of the Center for Learner Equity.