LAWRENCE — Mayor William Lantigua and members of the School Committee are ineffective leaders who have hampered efforts to improve the city's educational system, according to a state report.
Lantigua needs a "coach" to teach him how to be an effective chairman of the School Committee.
School Committee members should undergo "retraining" too, to learn how to behave and conduct themselves as elected officials responsible for oversight of the Lawrence Public Schools.
Those are just two of numerous recommendations in the "District Review" report the state Department of Elementary & Secondary Education presented to the School Committee last week.
"The school committee's failure to fulfill its role as steward of the system has had a negative impact ... and has eroded public confidence," the report concluded in a section on "Leadership and Governance."
A lack of leadership by the mayor and the School Committee has delayed the hiring of a new superintendent to replace fired Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy, the report noted. Laboy was fired in April of last year soon after an Essex County grand jury indicted him on eight counts of fraud and embezzlement, including charges that he used School Department employees and resources for his personal gain. His trial has been scheduled for November.
It took more than a year after Laboy's firing — in early May of this year — for the committee to finally vote to conduct a search for a new superintendent. This delay was compounded when the mayor ignored repeated requests by a committee member for a review of Interim Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron's contract, according to the report.
"This left the school district in a state of confusion with many wondering who would lead the district the following year; who would make decisions while the search was in progress; and, since the search would take place after the usual hiring season, whether suitable candidates would be available," the report noted.
'Assistance and accountability'
The 75-page report is based on the findings of a team of independent consultants that visited the city in May for several days to identify strengths and weaknesses in the local school system and recommend improvements.
"Leadership and Governance" was one of six areas the nine-member team reviewed. The consultants also examined curriculum and instruction, assessment, human resources and professional development, student support, and financial and asset management.
"We have a whole new process that aligns assistance and accountability and is specifically designed to keep everybody on track and focused," Senior Associate Education Commissioner Lynda Foisy told the School Committee in presenting the report at last Thursday's meeting.
"I believe that accountability is the highest form of assistance," Foisy said. Weaknesses can't be improved "unless somebody holds a mirror to your face and focuses on your flaws," she added.
Foisy and Eva Mitchell, director of District Accountability at the Department of Elementary & Secondary Education, offered to discuss specific findings and recommendations with the committee.
But Lantigua asked the education officials to return next month to allow committee members time to review the report. The committee's next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 13.
Committee members received the state report on the same night they learned from the chairman of the Lawrence Superintendent Screening Committee that its members found none of the 17 applicants they reviewed suitable for the Lawrence school superintendent's job.
The report's release comes in the midst an election campaign in which three of the six current district School Committee members are not candidates for another two-year term. Two other members face opposition in the Nov. 8 general election.
The committee that takes over in January will have at least three new members. If the current committee fails to fill the superintendent's position in the next three months, the new committee will be responsible for hiring a new superintendent — delaying a critical appointment even further.
Mayor Lantigua has declared it his intention to have a new superintendent hired before the current School Committee members' term expires.
But several members said that expectation is unrealistic, and that a new search should focus on hiring a new superintendent for the school year that begins next September.
In its findings, the district report concluded that the School Committee as a whole is not very knowledgeable about its role under the state Education Reform Act of 1993. When the Massachusetts Association of School Committees conducted a committee training session for members earlier this year, only three of the seven members participated.
"The Lawrence School Committee, with its chair, needs to demonstrate an understanding of the importance of the role of the school committee in setting the tone, establishing leadership, and insuring that the school budget and policies provide a strong foundation for district operations," the report recommended.
"To do so, the school committee should change its mode of operation so as to serve as a collaborative and deliberative body that hires and evaluates an appropriate superintendent, oversees the budget, and creates appropriate policy to guide the work of the district," it continued.
"The review found that the school committee has spent too much time on unproductive activities that distract attention away from the important work of a governing body."
As examples, the report cited the prolonged search for a superintendent, delays in developing a comprehensive building maintenance and capital improvement plan and members' failure to use data presented to the committee to make informed policy decisions.
The review found the School Committee "has not been effectively executing many of its broad and important governance responsibilities."
Instead, School Committee focus has been distracted by members addressing "side issues" rather than priorities.
One section titled "unproductive conduct" recalled instances where committee members provided public hearings to address individual student issues and to make disparaging comments to staff.
The report found that student issues were sometimes "inappropriately addressed" when the committee allowed parents to come forward to discuss specific issues related to their children, sometimes violating their privacy.
School Committee members also used the public participation segment of the meeting to act in the role of the public rather than as members of a governing body.
The report recommended Mayor Lantigua consult with education officials to find training and assistance for him and the rest of the committee.
"It is suggested that the chair work individually with a coach to help him effectively execute his role and responsibilities as school committee chair and the tools available to him to control and redirect inappropriate behavior by any member," the report suggested.
School Committee members should participate as a group in "retraining," which would include how members will interact with employees and with each other and "what the boundaries of their roles will be."