By Mark E. Vogler
---- — LAWRENCE — It’s hard to find a compelling campaign issue in this year’s city elections for School Committee — at least one that will distinguish each of the candidates.
Then again, fewer candidates are interested in running for an elective office that’s been stripped of its authority.
This will be the first election since the state took over Lawrence Public Schools in late November 2011. That creates an unprecedented situation where the school committee won’t have any direct involvement in voting on the budget or setting school district policy. It lost those governance powers under receivership.
With just seven announced candidates for the six district School Committee seats, the options will be extremely limited for voters, particularly in the three districts where incumbent candidates Pavel M. Payano (District C), Milquicided Santos (District B) and James R. Blatchford (District F) are all running uncontested on tomorrow’s preliminary election ballot.
There are five candidates for mayor, who chairs the seven-member committee.
Interest in the School Committee is worse than two years ago when nine candidates campaigned for office and three of the races were contested. Four years ago, there were 12 candidates with competition in three of the races.
Voters in District A won’t have a choice on the ballot. “I feel useless on that committee,” the incumbent committee member James Vittorioso said of his decision not seek another term.
But, Community activist Myra Ortiz last week began a write-in campaign for the District A committee seat. No names will appear on the ballot for the seat and Ortiz can take it only if at least 50 voters write in her name.
“Without someone representing my neighbors or myself, who do we go to when we have a problem or a concern about our child’s education?” Ortiz said about why she’s started the write-in campaign.
The only competition will be In District D — where newcomers Angel Garcia will face Jeovanny Rodriguez — and in District E, where Homayoun Maali will challenge incumbent Patricia Mariano.
With no more than two candidates for each seat, the School Committee ballots in September and November will be identical.
Only two of the announced candidates — both incumbent committee members — showed up at a recent political forum sponsored by the Lawrence City Democratic Committee.
Mariano, who has been and educator in the school district for four decades — as a teacher and principal — said people have asked her why she wants to be on the School Committee when members have no power.
“I take exception. We do have power,” Mariano told the small gather at the Lawrence Public Library.
“I have dedicated myself to fostering parent engagement. I see myself as being a bridge” between the parents and the school district, she said.
Mariano said she is motivated to run for School Committee so she can be “an active partner in the revitalization of the school system.”
Blatchford, who was elected to the committee two years ago without opposition to his District F seat, said he sees his role as a public watchdog as well public outreach.
“I felt there wasn’t enough transparency in the system (what he ran two years ago),” said Blatchford, who noted that state takeover came just two weeks after the 2011 election.
“Transparency is still an issue. The administration needs a little clarification on what they need to show the public, particularly on fiances,” he said.
Blatchford said he’s on a current mission “to make sure we are spending our money as efficiently as possible.”
In January 2012 during his first official meeting with the School Committee, Superintendent/Receiver Jeffrey C. Riley urged the newly elected members to serve as “ambassadors” — keeping the community informed about what’s going on inside the school system while also being a sounding board for the administration.
“My hope is that you work with me for the betterment of the Lawrence Public Schools,” Riley said.
“It is my hope that we operate in such a way that if and when the receivership ends, the School Committee will be fully restored,” he said.
At the outset of the meeting, Riley stressed that he was under no obligation to meet with the existing committee, but wanted to run an “inclusive” school system that considers participation from all parties.
“The viability of the School Committee has been called into question by the state and the citizens of Lawrence, he said, referring to a scathing state report released in the fall of 2011 that criticized the previous committee for a lack of leadership that contributed to the school system’s overall problems.
That report, coupled with declining MCAS test scores and five schools being identified as among the state’s poorest performing, prompted the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to declare Lawrence Public Schools as the state’s first “Level 5” district under a 2010 law that enables the state to take over “chronically underperforming” school districts.