MALDEN, Mass. — Update at 11 a.m.:
The Massachusetts Board of Education has voted for the school takeover.
Here’s how bad it is at many public schools in Lawrence: two of Lawrence’s three high schools have the lowest graduation rate in the state. Fewer than half of the students graduate in four years. On the English and math MCAS tests, students in Lawrence Public Schools are in the bottom 1 percent of the state.
Those are just a few of the statistics driving the Massachusetts Board of Education toward a possible takeover. The board votes Tuesday on the matter.
The man who is asking the state to step in is the chair of the school committee and mayor of Lawrence, William Lantigua.
“The students have waited too long, the parents have waited too long, we have waited too long to see the transformative changes that are needed, that our children need and deserve,” Lantigua said.
When the state Board of Education held a public meeting in Malden Monday night, several people criticized the panel for not holding the meeting, or any other public meetings about a takeover, in Lawrence.
Like the mayor, Lawrence’s teachers union is behind a state intervention. But union President Frank McLaughlin said the problem is the mayor and his lack of leadership.
“As the recent Education Department report correctly points out, poor leadership is the essential problem of the Lawrence Public Schools. They have been rudderless for months without a permanent leader,” McLaughlin said.
Lawrence has five under-performing schools and has been without a permanent superintendent for two years. The former superintendent goes on trial Tuesday for nine counts of fraud and embezzlement from the schools he was hired to guide. Lantigua has also been under a haze of suspicion amidst reports he’s the subject of federal and state corruption investigations.
But the problems existed before Lantigua came into office. Lawrence Public Schools have been struggling for more than a decade. The district’s 13,000 students have large barriers outside school which affect performance. Nine out of 10 students live in poverty. Ninety percent are Hispanic and 24 percent are still learning to speak and read English. Still, many do well in school, said Lisa Stott, an eighth grade English teacher. And, she said, a state take over would be devastating.
“Teachers like me, who have poured their hearts and souls into their work, often at the expense of their own families,” Stott said with emotion in her voice. We “believe in what we do everyday with our students. While we may not be making the extreme growth that the state has set targets for, we are making progress.”
But maybe not enough progress for what that state is putting into the district. More than 90 percent of Lawrence’s school budget comes from state, not local taxes.
Several members of the school committee strongly oppose a state takeover. They suggest the Board of Education appoint a superintendent instead, because the mayor has been unable to name one.
“We are not the bottom of the barrel and I take offense to that,” said Jim Blatchford, who was recently elected to the school committee.
“There are many school systems that have more under-performing schools, Level 4 schools, than us, and there’s not even a question of them being taking over, because it wasn’t requested?” Blatchford said.
Both Springfield and Boston do have more schools that are labeled “under-performing,” and those districts are likely keeping a close watch on what happens in Lawrence.
While the Massachusetts Legislature has given the OK to school interventions in the past, the state Board of Education has never placed a district under receivership. But new legislation passed last year would allow the state’s education commissioner to appoint an external manager or nonprofit to act as the superintendent and school board combined.
If the state Board of Education votes in favor of that on Tuesday, the new authority in Lawrence would be expected to make bold changes to improve student achievement.