By Mark E. Vogler
LAWRENCE — During nearly a decade with Wilfredo T. Laboy in charge, the Lawrence Public Schools experienced the best of times and the worst of times.
For much of his first eight years on the job, Laboy was one of the most respected school superintendents in the state — and he got paid like it, with annual raises boosting his salary to more than $200,000 by the summer of 2008.
That was his reward for being the leader who presided over a period of major accomplishments on the city's public education front: Lawrence High School regaining its accreditation, and the opening of a new $110-million, state-of-the art high school campus that features six smaller schools, each focusing on a different field of study.
Three new elementary schools for some 3,000 students also were built during Laboy's tenure at a cost of $90 million.
The city's first Latino school chief got considerable latitude in the fall of 2000 when he took over a school system mired in turmoil after the firing of its two previous superintendents in 1997 and 2000 for improper spending of school funds. Plummeting student test scores and academic failure also overlapped the scandals.
State and local officials were quick to embrace the white-maned and bearded educator hired from Brooklyn, N.Y. His controversial and outspoken ways offended teachers, whom he castigated as mediocre.
At the same time, Laboy's reputation as an innovative reformer in the ranks of urban school systems impressed his bosses, particularly a new governor, Republican Mitt Romney, who named Laboy to his transition team soon after his election in November 2002.
But being the best-paid municipal employee in the city — and one of the top-paid superintendents in the state — wasn't enough for Laboy, who last week was convicted by a Salem Superior Court jury on five counts of fraud and embezzlement for abusing public school resources for personal gain.
Will corruption ruin
Witnesses testified during his eight-day trial that Laboy had school graphic designers create and prepare print jobs for an outside educational group, the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, and for his son's Sal's Pizza shop in Methuen.
Jurors also found Laboy guilty of using school employees to drive around his adult son, who lost his license for two years, and of having custodians and facilities managers meet with contractors and repeatedly retrieve trash from his Methuen home. There was also testimony of Laboy taking a $1,500 cash kickback from a graphic designer. "The corruption of Wilfredo Laboy has been an open wound that continues today in the Lawrence Public Schools," Lawrence Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin said last Thursday after learning of Laboy's conviction.
"His conduct, his trial and his tenure has been very damaging to the district. Basically what happened today (Laboy's conviction) affirmed what we always knew had happened under his selfish leadership. Nobody suffered more through the Laboy tenure than the teachers, the parents and the kids," McLaughlin said.
The Lawrence Teachers Union issued a vote of no confidence in Laboy in 2007, well before his criminal activities came to light. "Ninety-eight percent of the teachers can't be wrong. Justice was served today," McLaughlin said. "Everybody knew that Laboy would always get what he had coming to him, and he got it. This has been a distraction, but we have to move on. Now the healing has to begin."
Laboy drew a 90-day jail sentence, which will be followed by a year of house arrest, three years of probation and 600 hours of community service. He will also have to pay a yet-to-be determined amount of restitution.
"I don't think it's going to be a lot of money, maybe a few thousand dollars," said former School Committee member Gregory Morris, who served six years before electing not to run for a fourth term last fall. "The big question is 'Why?' He could have very easily afforded it. It's a shame the way things turned out, because up until that point (when the scandal first broke with allegations of corruption in 2009), he was doing a fine job. There were some great things happening."
Now, Morris says, those accomplishments have been tainted.
"Unfortunately, it's the last impression that people are going to remember. For all the good he did in the first six to seven years, the last two will tarnish his name," Morris said. "I don't think he can be judged favorably when you look back at his time, between 'the snoop list' controversy, his indictment and termination, Unfortunately, this overshadows all the good he did."
But an ex-city leader who worked with Laboy for eight years said he believes Laboy's legacy of success will survive.
"This conviction could never change his record of lots of accomplishments," former Mayor Michael J. Sullivan said in an interview Friday.
"We were colleagues for eight years and I will always respect the work that he did in the city of Lawrence. Dr. Laboy's challenge will be how to come out of this stronger personally and professionally and continue on with his career," said Sullivan.
A career marked by controversy
From the outset of his career in Lawrence, Laboy always received rave reviews from School Committee members, despite criticism that he was arrogant, aloof, inaccessible and combative in his dealings with members.
Some of his most ardent critics — like former School Committeewoman Suzanne McHugh Piscitello — surprisingly followed up harsh criticism with hefty pay raises.
In a December 2002 interview, Piscitello called Laboy the second-best superintendent Lawrence had seen since World War II, behind Eugene F. Thayer.
"This is a $125 million business and you check your CEOs by the profit margin," said Piscitello, a retired Lawrence assistant superintendent. "The profit margin is that our scores are up, and we were at the bottom of the heap."
As time passed, Laboy's working relations with the School Committee continued to deteriorate. Laboy seemed to have a flair for controversy, which generated much of the committee's criticism. But they kept hiking his pay.
The first major test for Laboy came in the summer of 2003, when The Eagle-Tribune reported. Laboy had three times failed a literacy test that was required for all teachers and administrators seeking a state educator license. The story garnered international attention before he eventually passed the test.
"The Laboy factor" surfaced as a campaign issue in that fall's elections. Voters replaced four strong Laboy supporters on the committee with candidates who vowed to scrutinize the superintendent more closely.
The candidates criticized Laboy for failing the test. They chided him for being arrogant, maintaining poor communications with the public and the school committee, and creating an environment in which his subordinates were afraid to challenge his ideas.
Still, some committee members and Laboy supporters portrayed him as a tough leader who wasn't afraid to make unpopular decisions — an invaluable strength needed to turn the district around.
The controversies escalated in 2005. Early in the year, Laboy tried to get reimbursed $490 for running boards he installed on his city-leased SUV to make it easier for family members to step into the vehicle. An angry committee made him pay the bill.
Later in the year came the celebrated scuffle in the doorway of his school administration office with School Committee member Amy McGovern. Throughout her two terms, the diminutive, but feisty and fearless critic had sparred frequently with Laboy over such issues as his spending practices, communication with the School Committee and what she saw as the overall poor administration of the School Department.
But in June, McGovern-Laboy relations got personal — starting with a frantic 911 call by McGovern, a police investigation and dueling criminal complaints. McGovern said Laboy struck her with his forearm and injured her during a confrontation in the doorway of the superintendent's office. Laboy filed his own complaint charging that McGovern grabbed his hand and would not let go as he tried to close his office door.
Then-Mayor Sullivan played the role of peacemaker in a controversy that was generating massive media coverage. He publicly appealed to Laboy and McGovern to drop the assault charges they filed against each other to spare the city an embarrassing and distracting courtroom spectacle. Laboy and McGovern finally struck a deal eight months after the incident.
There were other controversies, including:
A clash with police Chief John Romero over security in the schools. Soon after he arrived, Laboy removed the three police officers assigned to the schools, saying they created a prison-like environment.
Complaints of censorship at the high school in December 2007 after Laboy ordered janitors to paint over a mural done by a 15-year-old student showing Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Thuan Tran had received permission from his principal to paint the corridor as an art project, designed to relate to the school's mission of training students as leaders. But Laboy had it removed because he never formally approved it. Students and parents viewed Laboy's reaction as insensitive.
An Eagle-Tribune investigation in April 2009 that revealed the so-called "snoop list," a controversy that prompted the resignation of Laboy's special assistant, Mark Rivera, and a public apology by the superintendent. Celebrities, pro athletes, local politicians and reporters were among those who were inappropriately checked out on school-owned computers with software that was only supposed to be used to track students for enrollment and busing purposes.
That may have been the turning point for Laboy, who went on medical leave weeks after Rivera's departure and never returned. He was suspended indefinitely after a criminal investigation into his alleged corruption became public, then fired after being indicted by an Essex County grand jury.
Things got worse after Laboy
Even after Laboy's once-remarkable career ended in disgrace, controversy continued to swirl around the School Department offices at 255 Essex St. A scathing state report issued last fall hinted that Lawrence Public Schools were headed into state receivership. It cited a system in disarray with a dramatic drop in academic achievement and a lack of leadership by Mayor William Lantigua and the School Committee he chairs.
Laboy can't get blamed for that because the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education vote for the takeover came in late November — about two and a half years after he went on medical leave.
During Laboy's recent trial, his defense attorney Scott Gleason tried to raise the argument that firing Laboy contributed to the School Department going into receivership.
Is it a fair argument? School Committee member Morris, who voted to fire Laboy, said he believes the a state takeover never would have happened if Laboy didn't get caught up in the corruption scandal.
"If this hadn't happened and test scores started turning around, who knows where we'd be," Morris said.
Had Laboy just focused on serving the city's 13,000 students, "We're not even having this conversation (about receivership)," he speculated.
Morris also noted that it was the lack of stability in leadership which ultimately put the district into receivership, specifically going more than two years without finding a permanent replacement for Laboy.
That was the fault of the School Committee, which should have made Interim Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron's appointment permanent or hired somebody to replace Laboy. The state wouldn't have declared Lawrence a Level 5 "chronically underperforming" district, prompting the takeover, Morris suggested.