By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — The fight for union votes in a city that was a cradle of the nation’s labor movement split down the middle last week, when Mayor William Lantigua won the endorsement of the firefighters while challenger Daniel Rivera got a backslap from the teachers.
Teachers union president Frank McLaughlin said Friday that several hundred teachers and school nurses attended a closed-door meeting at the Relief’s In to vote their endorsement on Wednesday, but was not more specific about the number.
He said they voted unanimously for Rivera, a two-term city councilor, because Lantigua has failed for four years to negotiate a contract with the teachers and has otherwise paid little attention to the schools and their 13,000 students.
“He abandoned the school system,” McLaughlin said. “He hasn’t shown up to chair a School Committee meeting since we went into receivership.”
Lantigua attended seven of 15 School Committee meetings between January 2012, when the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education took over Lawrence schools, and May, the last month for which attendance records were immediately available. The 47 percent attendance record was the worst of the committee’s seven members.
The teachers’ vote for Rivera was a second rebuke of Lantigua’s leadership of the city’s public schools, which all but ended last year when the state took them over, citing their chronic underachievement and blaming, at least in part, what it said was Lantigua’s inept oversight as chairman of the School Committee. A 75-page assessment of the school system issued by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that under Lantigua’s chairmanship, the School Committee focused on “unproductive activities” while failing to perform its core missions, including hiring a superintendent.
The takeover means that whoever is elected mayor on Nov. 5 will have little say over how Lawrence students are educated. Jeff Riley, the state-appointed receiver, has full control over the system, including curriculum, budgeting and staffing. Riley said he does not expect the state will return control of the schools to the city for at least five years, and possibly eight.
On the campaign trail, Rivera frequently mentions the need to improve city schools but, like Lantigua, has offered no broad plan for getting that job done and would have no authority to implement one. Among his proposals, Rivera said he would offer Martha’s Vineyard vacations — paid for by private donations — to teachers whose students excel.
After getting the teachers’ endorsement, he said as mayor he would participate in school issues as much as possible.
“First, you attend School Committee meetings,” Rivera said about the influence he would attempt to exercise. “Just because the document says there’s no power doesn’t mean you have to be absent from the whole conversation.”
Lantigua could not be reached for comment Friday, but has said the state took over the schools at his invitation and cited the takeover as a major accomplishment for his administration because of the turnaround he said it is bringing about.
Results of recent MCAS tests the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released last month show students in Lawrence, the state’s most troubled school system, made dramatic improvement during the first full year of state control.
The graduation rate at Lawrence High School also has climbed after fluctuating under Lantigua. The rate dropped 1 point to 49 percent in 2010, Lantigua’s first year in office, then jumped to 54 percent in 2011. The state took control of Lawrence schools on Jan. 1, 2012. Six months later, 64 percent of seniors received diplomas.
In all, the teachers union represents 1,300 teachers and school nurses, making it the largest union of public employees. It was unclear Friday how many live in Lawrence.
In backing Rivera, Lawrence teachers chose a product of Lawrence schools. He enrolled in the Leonard Middle School after moving here with his family from The Bronx, N.Y., and graduated from Lawrence High School — where union president McLaughlin taught him math — in 1989. He has a bachelor’s degree from UMass Amherst and an MBA from Suffolk University.
During more than a decade as a state representative and as mayor, Lantigua has declined to describe his education. Under that category on his Facebook page, Lantigua lists only “Dominican Republic.”
A few hours after the teachers’ vote Wednesday, and at another closed-door meeting in the same union hall, members of the union representing city firefighters voted to endorse Lantigua. The union has 130 uniformed and civilian members.
Lantigua also has had a troubled relationship with the firefighters union, at least in his first year as mayor. But he later negotiated a contract with two 2.5 percent annual raises for the union and has rehired all of the 23 firefighters he laid off — initially paid for with a federal grant — which has thawed his relationship with the union.
“We’re looking forward,” Eric Zahn, president of the firefighters union, said after his membership’s lopsided vote for Lantigua. “We’re not looking to rehash the past.”
The city’s two police unions are not expected to make endorsements.