LAWRENCE — State Rep. Frank Moran on Monday asked state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley to block the appointment of a new superintendent of schools until Riley can investigate allegations that two members of the board doing the search have provided services to the schools and so face a conflict of interest in selecting the superintendent.
In an email to Riley, Moran also said it is an "absolute travesty" that the search for a superintendent by the seven-member board running the city's schools for the state produced just two finalists – a third pulled out – from the 40 or so who applied. Moran also noted that one of the finalists – Verna Ruffin, chief academic officer for all schools in receivership in Tennessee – is from out of state, does not speak Spanish and has run into opposition from Frank McLaughlin, the president of the Lawrence teacher's union, which Moran suggested leaves just one credible candidate.
"As commissioner, you have the authority to support, question and above all condemn the process and decisions of the Alliance Board," Moran said, referring to the Lawrence Alliance for Education, which is the board the state appointed to take over as receiver after Riley gave up the job and was subsequently named commissioner of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. "Therefore, I am requesting for you as commissioner to stop the search immediately until you have the opportunity to look into these matters. ..."
Moran, D-Lawrence, did not return phone calls and emails seeking the names of the two board members whom he said face conflicts and seeking details about the work they've done for Lawrence schools that he said creates the conflict.
Riley responded by defending the search and standing by the finalists for superintendent the board selected.
“The superintendent search process began with public input about the qualities Lawrence residents believe are important in their next superintendent, and the process has remained faithful to those qualities, as well as fair, transparent, and focused on who will best serve all Lawrence students," Riley said in a statement issued through an aide. "The search has been conducted in line with typical superintendent search processes and in accordance with the open meeting law."
John Connolly, the Boston man who chairs the Lawrence Alliance for Education, and Mayor Daniel Rivera, who serves on the board, also defended the board's work.
"Lawrence voices have participated in every stage of the search, and ultimately, three candidates who met the community standards were invited to final public interviews," Connolly said. "Two of the candidates elected to participate and each represents a great option to continue moving the Lawrence Public Schools forward."
Rivera said Moran deserves to have his concerns heard, but said he is satisfied with the process the board used to recruit and screen candidates for superintendent and is happy with the result.
"He has an important voice and we want to make sure he's heard," Rivera said about Moran, but added that "the process was thorough and we got a good result. Hiring is often times a hard process, especially at this level."
The search for a new superintendent began when Jeff Wulfson, the acting state education commissioner whom Riley recently succeeded in the job, hired a consultant to find and screen candidates. A short while after, Wulfson created the Lawrence Alliance for Education and appointed Connolly, Rivera and five other members to it.
The consultant, Ed McCormick of the search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, held several focus groups with teachers, students, School Committee members and other stakeholders to gather their input about what qualities the Alliance should seek in a superintendent. The board used McCormick's report to whittle the 40 applicants to three.
Ruffin and the second finalist, Cynthia Paris, an assistant superintendent of schools in Newton, Massachusetts, are scheduled to visit Lawrence on Tuesday for meetings with students, teachers and the School Committee, followed by a forum that will be open to the public at 6 p.m. at South Lawrence East Elementary School.
On Wednesday, the board will separately interview Ruffin and Paris beginning at 10 a.m. at the former high school, now the North Common Educational Complex. The interviews also will be open to the public. The board is scheduled to announce its choice next week.
Reached Monday, Ruffin declined to discuss the concerns raised by Moran and by McLaughlin.
McLaughlin has alleged that she had rocky relationships with teachers unions while working as a principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent in school districts in Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma and Tennessee before she was named chief academic officer for the schools in receivership in Tennessee.