By Alex Bloom
LAWRENCE — In a "last-resort kind of action" the state will take over a Lawrence public school system deemed to be among the worst in Massachusetts and dragged down by years of poor leadership and student performance.
"I don't see a path forward that has a likely outcome of positive results for students in Lawrence short of receivership," Mitchell Chester, the state's education commissioner, said yesterday.
The state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted 10-1 to designate Lawrence as a "Level 5" district, labeling it a chronically underperforming district and clearing the way to place the city's failing schools into receivership.
Chester will spend the next two weeks selecting and appointing a receiver, who will assume control on Jan. 1. The receiver will have the powers of both the school superintendent and the School Committee.
He said the receiver could be in the district for as much as four to five years.
Mayor William Lantigua, who is chairman of the School Committee, did not attend yesterday's meeting, but said in a statement he is glad the state will be implementing an aggressive plan to make wholesale changes.
"Today marks a new day for our school district and symbolizes a sign of hope for our parents and children within our system," Lantigua said in the statement.
Multiple School Committee members and politicians spent the last week asking the state to intervene, but not to go so far as receivership. But Chester said receivership is the only way to make transformational change for the city's 13,000 students.
"The ideal is that local governments run their own school districts, not that the state runs school districts," Chester said. "It's only in the extreme situation that I would recommend receivership, which is what we have here in Lawrence."
Lawrence is the first district to be taken over by the state under its 2010 legislation, An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap. Chelsea's School Committee voted in 1989 to hand over control of that city's schools to Boston University, an arrangement that lasted until 2008.
The state has a long history of intervening in Lawrence schools. In 2000, the state's education department appointed a five-member partnership team, which spent five years working with Lawrence to restore accreditation to the high school and correct years of mismanagement, including the firings of two superintendents. The team's pick for superintendent, Wilfredo Laboy, was fired in April 2010 and faces trial for fraud and embezzlement charges.
"This is a last-resort kind of action so we hope that this is the exception not the rule in terms of ways we interact with school districts," said Paul Reville, the state's Secretary of Education, who voted for the state takeover.
The move follows the state conducting a comprehensive district review, which pointed out leadership problems, issues with getting students to meet MCAS goals, and inabilities to help students who do not speak English as their first language — all of which was summed up in an 81-page report released last month.
Infighting paved way for move
Board members frequently alluded to the dysfunctional politics of the city's School Committee, with some focusing on Lantigua's failed superintendent search and the board's rejection of a contract extension for Interim Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron. The search ended in September with a screening committee unable to recommend any of the 17 applicants for the job.
Ruth Kaplan, the lone dissenting board member, said she would rather that the state appoint a new superintendent and said she had received requests asking that the state remove Lantigua as the School Committee's leader.
"For the life of me, I wish the mayor was here today," Kaplan said, adding that she would question Lantigua directly. "I would ask him why that search was not done in two years. It seems like he obstructed that search and I wish he were here."
Lantigua called for the state to take over the school system on Nov. 15.
Lawrence Teachers' Union president Frank McLaughlin said he was heartened that the schools would no longer be under the control of the School Committee and Lantigua.
"His administration has been an absolute disgrace," McLauglin said of Lantigua. "I think that it's appalling that he was not here today at this meeting."
Not just the mayor
Chester reiterated that the takeover has much to do with student performance. The state has been working with the city's schools since 1997, when the high school lost accreditation. Earlier this month, the state labeled three more schools "underperforming," bringing the total number of underperforming schools in the district to five out of 29 schools.
Problems with student achievement are rampant, with just 36 percent of third-graders reaching proficiency in English on MCAS testing, and 26.6 percent of high school students dropping out within four years.
Board member Jeff Howard pointed out it has been 15 years since the city's high school lost accreditation in 1997, but that a 2-year-old child at that time is now in a building where less than half the students graduate within four years.
"It seems to me that statistic alone demands that something important be done," Howard said.
Beverly Holmes, a board member, supported receivership but said that from her experience as a member from Springfield — which spent five years in receivership through 2009 — told the board that receivership will not be a "cakewalk."
"It is going to bring out the good, the bad and the ugly, and we must understand that," Holmes said.
Board member Vanessa Calderón-Rosado lashed out at the system's failing of its students.
"As a Latina, I can't help it but feel outraged by the situation," Calderón-Rosado said. "It's a shame and this goes beyond Mayor Lantigua and his shortcomings, whatever they might be."
Bergeron will serve out the end of her contract as the district's interim superintendent, and will move down to be the assistant superintendent when the receiver takes over.
"I think action had to be taken," Bergeron said after the meeting. "And I think that if this is the only action the board can take to move the district forward, than that's the action that needed to happen."
Gov. Deval Patrick said in a statement, receivership presents "the best path forward for our students, our teachers and the city."
• • •
Follow Alex Bloom on Twitter under the screen name ABloomET.
To comment on stories and see what others are saying, log on to eagletribune.com.