LAWRENCE — State Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester is troubled by "a potential leadership gap" that the Lawrence Public Schools could soon be facing, according to an official in the commissioner's office.
With Interim Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron's contract due to expire at the end of the year and growing doubts that the current School Committee will be able to hire a permanent superintendent by then, Chester is prepared to discuss possible options for running the city's education system.
"It has his attention and concerns," Eva Mitchell, director of District Accountability at the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, said in an interview after last night's School Committee meeting.
"He plans to address it at the Oct. 25th meeting, she said, referring to the upcoming Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting.
Commissioner Chester's concerns come on the heels of a state report released by his department last month which was highly critical of the Lawrence Public Schools. The 81-page report cited Mayor William Lantigua and the School Committee for ineffective leadership, noting that their inaction in hiring a permanent superintendent to oversee the schools jeopardizes education for its 13,000 students.
Mitchell said the commissioner has reviewed the report, which will be presented to the state education board at its next meeting. Mitchell and Deputy Commissioner Jeff Wulfson met with the School Committee last night to review the so-called "District Review" and answer questions.
Mayor Lantigua, who chairs the 7-member School Committee, was absent from the meeting and didn't notify the superintendent or members that he would not be attending. Member Gregory Morris advised colleagues ahead of time that he would miss the meeting.
"Overall, the district is not yet where we expect it to be and want it to be," Wulfson told the School Committee.
Wulfson said the state agency's goal was to "help you on the School Committee to develop a road map" to improve the city's school system.
"We know we can do better ... We must do better," he said.
"Leadership and Governance" was one of six areas that a nine-member team of independent consultants reviewed for state education officials. The consultants also examined curriculum and instruction, assessment, human resources and professional development, student support, and financial and asset management.
"There are some grave concerns about governance and stability of leadership," Mitchell told School Committee members in briefing them about the report's findings and the 13 recommendations for improving the school system.
Several School Committee members said they agreed with the report's criticism of the leadership shortcomings and said they hoped the could use the recommendations to improve the next School Committee. With city elections in November, there will be at least three new members next year.
"I think this report is going to do well because now we know what needs to be done," committee Vice Chairman Samuel Reyes said. "It opened our eyes," he said.
Committee member Pavel Payano said the committee should use it as a tool "to move forward."
"It should be clear the group as a whole should become more educated," Payano said.