Published Online: February 12, 1997


Association expected to yank accreditation of district's only high school.

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The Massachusetts state school board is expected this week to explore a first-ever takeover of a school district in the state, targeting the Lawrence public schools and revoking the certification of the district's superintendent.

The Feb. 10 board meeting comes as problems mount in the state's poorest district.

Next month, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges is expected to pull the accreditation of the 11,650-student district's only high school.

Meanwhile, the district's spending priorities, which include purchasing a police dog and $3,000 laptop computers for custodians, have worried state officials enough that auditors are now poring over the district's books. And Lawrence's mayor, who is also the chairwoman of the local school board, has called for the ouster of Superintendent James Scully.

Gov. William F. Weld's education adviser, Michael Sentance, said last week that the impending loss of accreditation only confirmed state suspicions.

"It's such an upside-down, Alice-in-Wonderland kind of experience," Mr. Sentance said. "It demands action."

State education officials have already stepped up their involvement in the district. Education Commissioner Robert V. Antonucci met privately last week with Mr. Scully in the first of what is to be a series of meetings.

Now, Gov. Weld, Mr. Antonucci, and state board Chairman John R. Silber have agreed to ask the state board to take action against the district, according to Mr. Antonucci's spokesman, Alan Safran.

Financial Questions

The state's 1993 education reform act requires two years' notice before the state can take over a school district, but the board is considering asking the legislature to waive the notice. The board's nine members will also be asked to give the commissioner the power to revoke the certification of a superintendent or principal in a district where a school loses accreditation.

There is "no reason to doubt" that the board will adopt the proposals, Mr. Safran said last week.

Problems are hardly new to Lawrence High. The New England accrediting association placed the school on probation in 1992. If it loses accreditation, it will be only the second public school in Massachusetts to fail to meet the minimum standards.

Out of the 10 standards areas that the accreditors look at, Lawrence High is deficient in five. The group faulted the school for its expectations for student learning, curriculum, and financial support, said Pamela Gray-Bennett, the director of the commission on public secondary schools at the accrediting association.

Money and management issues are the most serious problems, Mr. Sentance, the governor's adviser, said. Since 1993, the district's budget has ballooned from $42 million to $74 million even though enrollment has remained steady.

Instead of spending $46,000 to fix the obsolete science lab at Lawrence High, Mr. Sentance said, the district spent $400,000 on laptop computers for school board members, custodians, and teachers.

"This is simply a gift under another name that the superintendent gave to the school committee," Mr. Sentance said.

District Defended

Richard J. Hoffmann, an assistant superintendent for the Lawrence schools, defended the purchase of laptops as necessary. He said his district is at a disadvantage because of its poverty and because the high school has had five principals in 10 years. In addition, he said the district has put top priority on safety issues and getting rid of drugs and violence at Lawrence High School.

"Probably the curriculum and instructional side of the house we didn't put as much time into," Mr. Hoffmann said.

Mr. Sentance argued the district has "sufficient funds to do anything that they have wanted to do," and that it is clearly time for a change of leadership.

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