EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 10, 2013

State education takeover dulls interest in running for School Committee

By Keith Eddings

---- — LAWRENCE — Beyond the longer school days and the promise of pay hikes for the best teachers, the state takeover of the city’s public schools has accomplished one thing more: appearing to dull interest in serving on the committee that ran the schools until the state relieved it of duty in 2011.

More than five weeks after nominating petitions became available for the six committee seats that will be on the ballot in November, just five people have picked them up. Four are incumbents and one is a challenger, meaning that just one contest has taken shape in longer than a month.

James Vittorioso, the committee’s longest serving member and a former teacher, is stepping down after six, two-year terms. He said serving another would be pointless because the committee has no power. Incumbent Francisco Surillo also is giving up after just one term to run for the City Council.

The impact of the state takeover was first felt on the School Committee only a few months after it happened, when Jennifer Cooper gave up her seat midway through her first term in August, citing frustration with the takeover.

Vittorioso echoed that sentiment Wednesday. He said the takeover has driven him to quit the committee and said other potential candidates have told him they won’t run while the state is in charge.

“We were elected by the people, but the state says we’re only — I don’t know what word to use,” Vittorioso said. “We have no power at all. I talked to several people who’d be good choices. They don’t want to get involved. The reason is, why run for office when you have no power? You have no power at all.”

The four incumbents running for new terms are Pavel Payano, who represents District C and is the committee’s vice chairman; James Blatchford, who represents District F; Milquicided Santos, who represents District B; and Patricia Mariano, who has represented District E since she was appointed to the seat Cooper quit in August.

The sole challenger to emerge so far is Homayoun Maali, who ran unsuccessfully for the committee in 2009 and 2011 and also sought the appointment to the District E seat Cooper gave up last year. He’s running against Mariano in the Sept. 17 preliminary election.

The School Committee is chaired by Mayor William Lantigua, who holds his seat by virtue of his office and does not run for it.

Blatchford said the state takeover has deepened already widespread apathy about the city’s public schools.

“This election will be worse than the others because of the state takeover,” said Blatchford, who ran unopposed last year and so far is unopposed this year. “The state takeover emphasized how much people don’t care that much about Lawrence Public Schools and how there’s no emphasis on the schools in they eyes of people in Lawrence.”

Blatchford said his point is proven by the fact that none of the six elected members of the School Committee has a child in Lawrence schools. Although Lantigua has a son who attends a charter school, the school is not governed by the School Committee.

Lantigua’s interest in city schools appears uneven. He has said the state takeover was his idea, and records show he has attended just seven of the 15 meetings of the School Committee since the takeover. Surillo has attended all 15, Vittorioso and Blatchford have attended 14, Santos has attended 12 and Payano has attended 11. Mariano has attended six of the eight meetings since joining the committee in September.

Through a spokesman, state Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester said the Lawrence School Committee still has a role even if it has no vote.

“We know the superintendent definitely values their input,” said the spokesman, J.C. Considine, referring to Jeff Riley, who has been running the city’s schools for the state for 17 months. “He listens to their input. Ultimately down the road, we’re going to need a school committee in place that’s up to speed on the key turnaround work in the district, because at some point the receivership is going to end and the oversight of the district is going to revert back to the school committee.”

Blatchford said he’s running again because despite the diminished role the School Committee plays while the state runs the schools, it still has a job to do.

“It’s unfortunate, because there’s no one to check on what happens in Lawrence Public Schools,” Blatchford said. “It’s only us going to meetings and getting to ask questions, which isn’t the best process. Sometimes it’s like banging your head against the wall in terms of not having the authority to do things. But at this point, somebody needs to ask the questions and I’m willing to do it.”