LAWRENCE — How will the Lawrence Public Schools change when a state-appointed receiver replaces the superintendent and School Committee on Jan. 1?
Members of the Lawrence Teachers Union got to ask state Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester that and other related questions yesterday in a private meeting at the Firefighters Relief's In.
"He still doesn't have the answers to a lot of the questions because he hasn't appointed the receiver yet," union President Frank McLaughlin said in an interview after the two-hour session.
"It was a very good meeting. He was extremely positive and extremely inspiring. When the teachers left the hall, there were a lot who disagreed with him — many who don't think we should be going into receivership. But every teacher felt they could work with him and every teacher wants to work with him," McLaughlin said.
Chester's briefing with the teachers union was the first in a series of community outreach visits he has scheduled for the city following last week's vote by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to designate Lawrence Public Schools as a "Level 5" school district, a classification for "chronic underperformance." The vote authorizes Chester to appoint a receiver to take over the city's troubled education system, which serves some 13,000 students.
"He anticipates picking the receiver within the next two weeks, or certainly by the end of the month," JC Considine, a spokesman for the commissioner said yesterday. "He's reaching out to a number of candidates, and some have reached out to him," he said.
Meanwhile, Chester will continue with two planned visits to Lawrence next week — one of them a community meeting on Monday to explain why he recommended that Lawrence be put on "Level 5" status and what it will mean for the school district.
School Committee member Greg Morris, a guest at yesterday's meeting, said he was impressed with the commissioner's presentation and the teachers' response.
"It was positive, but it was also truthful tone," Morris said.
"There was professionalism on both sides. It wasn't a beat-up session. I think everybody walked out of the meeting knowing that it isn't the end of the world. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we're going to put some air in the tire," Morris said.
While no new details of the receivership were released, Morris said he thought the commissioner's visit and the ones he has planned for next week should help allay some of the public apprehension about a school system mired in turmoil.
"It's good to see he's making the right steps, getting to know the city before making some harsh decisions," Morris said.
"He is not in favor of coming in here and getting rid of everybody. That makes no sense," Morris said.
McLaughlin, whose union represents 1,000 teachers and educational staff, said he believes Chester reassured union members that good employees need not worry about their jobs.
"He said that there's going to be change and told us don't expect business as usual. There will be change, but there will be no wholesale firings," McLaughlin said.
"We welcome change and the ideas that a receiver will bring. The commissioner talked about how best to generate parental involvement, how best to improve English language teaching and how best to improve teaching and instruction, I think Commissioner Chester is committed to solving the problems of the school system and I will stand with him any day," McLaughlin said.
Interim Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron and several administrators attended yesterday's session.
"Mary Lou received a rousing round of applause — twice," McLaughlin said.
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Commissioner Chester's Agenda
State Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester will visit Lawrence twice next week.
Monday: Chester will host an open meeting with the Lawrence community at 6:30 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center at Lawrence High School to discuss the recent vote by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education's to place the Lawrence Public Schools into receivership and answer questions from parents and other community members. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has set up an email address, LawrenceQuestions@doe.mass.edu, to allow interested parties to submit comments and questions about the Lawrence Public Schools at any time.
Wednesday: Chester will meet in closed sessions with business leaders in Lawrence and later have a session with the administrative staff of Lawrence Public Schools.