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Calls Grow For Board Of Education Member To Resign Over Comments About Holyoke, Lawrence

Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Michael Moriarty of Holyoke speaks during an April 20 meeting. His comments during a discussion of the state's school and district accountability system have prompted some Lawrence officials to call for his removal from the board. (Screenshot via SHNS)
Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member Michael Moriarty of Holyoke speaks during an April 20 meeting. His comments during a discussion of the state's school and district accountability system have prompted some Lawrence officials to call for his removal from the board. (Screenshot via SHNS)

A statewide teachers union and its Lawrence local are calling for a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education member to resign over comments he made at a recent meeting, days after three state lawmakers, several city officials and Congresswoman Lori Trahan also called for his removal.

Board member Michael Moriarty, executive director of the OneHolyoke community development corporation, has apologized for his remarks during a discussion of the state's school accountability system, saying he "never meant to disparage people who live in Holyoke and Lawrence."

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The board voted on April 20 to solicit public comment on regulatory changes that would allow the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to refrain from issuing new accountability determinations this year, keeping schools and districts at their current status.

Moriarty said the freeze is necessary amid the COVID-19 pandemic but suggested a broader conversation about the accountability system, referencing earlier board discussion on the admissions policies for vocational technical schools.

"We just went through an awful lot, worrying about disparate impacts in the one very precise area of how you get into a vocational school, but it's accountability in places like Lawrence and Holyoke and other communities that are Level 5 or schools that are Level 5, that's disparate impact writ large," he said. "That's a period of time now where we've been unable to take the kind of actions that are necessary because of the deep inequities that exist from one district to the next, and we know they can't change themselves because they never do, so if there's any place where there needs to be a very serious conversation and a very serious intentionality about moving forward, it's going to be in a revived accountability system that follows the end of this pandemic."

Lawrence, Holyoke and Southbridge are the three school districts assigned "Level 5" or "chronically underperforming" status in the accountability system, and each has a state-appointed receiver overseeing turnaround efforts.

American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos and Lawrence Teachers Union Local 1019 President Kimberly Barry put out a joint statement Wednesday calling for Moriarty's immediate resignation. They said other board members who participated in last week's meeting should "denounce his language and join us in calling for his resignation" and that Gov. Charlie Baker should remove Moriarty from the board if he does not step down.

Kontos and Barry called it "impossible for the people of Lawrence, Holyoke or any Massachusetts Gateway City where families struggle for a share of the American dream to have confidence" in the department while Moriarty is on its board.

"Moriarty's recent comment that 'they can't change themselves' is demeaning to parents and cause for dismissal of any public official. Mr. Moriarty must submit his resignation as a first step toward restoring confidence in the DESE board," they said.

Moriarty, an attorney, attended and taught in Holyoke Public Schools and served 13 years on that city's school committee, according to his biography on the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's website. Baker appointed him to the state education board in September 2015.

"During the April 20 Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting, I made a comment regarding the value of MCAS and the school accountability system, which I regret was insulting, and for that I sincerely apologize," Moriarty said in a statement issued last week. "I was speaking about schools in Holyoke - my home town - and Lawrence, and other communities with Level 5 underperforming schools. In referring to those particular school districts I said, 'we know they can't change themselves, because they never do.' I was referring to school districts, not people in those communities. I never meant to disparage people who live in Holyoke and Lawrence. I apologize for giving that impression. I will strive to communicate much better going forward."

On Friday, Reps. Frank Moran and Marcos Devers, Sen. Barry Finegold, and Trahan, all of whom represent Lawrence, seven city councilors and a Lawrence School Committee member wrote to Baker, requesting Moriarty's removal from the board.

The letter -- signed by councilors Jeovanny Rodriguez, Maria De La Cruz, Celina Reyes, Pavel Payano, Jorge Gonzalez, Ana Levy and Estella Reyes and School Committee member Joshua Alba — said the comments indicate that Moriarty's "priorities as a board member of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education do not reflect the urgent needs of the City of Lawrence and similar minority communities."

"The statement that communities such as Lawrence, a city primarily comprised of immigrants and people of color will 'never change themselves because they never do' is deeply problematic and demonstrates Mr. Moriarty's incredible lack of understanding of the issues that such communities face," the officials wrote.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is next scheduled to meet on May 24 and 25.

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