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Mass. Board Moves To Take Over Lawrence Schools

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Massachusetts education officials took the first step last week toward seizing control of the Lawrence district, citing its high school's loss of accreditation and a recent audit that turned up potential financial illegalities.

The state school board agreed with Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci that the 11,650-student system showed evidence of chronic underperformance, setting the stage for a possible takeover as early as this summer. This is the first time the board has exercised powers granted under the state's 1993 education reform law to strip local school officials of their authority.

"We've reached a point now where we have to step in," Mr. Antonucci said last week.

The commissioner will now appoint a team of outside evaluators to examine the district's problems and assess its prospects for correcting them. Based on the team's findings, he will report to the state board no later than Aug. 15 on whether a takeover is needed.

The board also asked the state attorney general to review a report by state auditors released this month that uncovered evidence of possible criminal violations. Attempts to reach local officials for comment were unsuccessful last week.

Mismanagement Alleged

The state board began publicly discussing the possibility of a takeover in February as doubts about the district's finances grew and it became clear that the New England Association of Schools and Colleges was on the verge of yanking Lawrence High School's accreditation. ("State Board Mulls First-Ever Takeover Of Mass. District," Feb. 12, 1997.)

The 1993 law, which rewrote the state's funding formula, has meant millions of extra dollars for the impoverished district, which receives most of its $80 million budget from the state.

But in a report released this month, state auditors said the district appeared to violate state law by underfunding certain areas of its budget and then failing to account for the discrepancies. At the same time, the auditors said, local officials found room in their budget for such items as skating, bagpipe, and fencing programs, as well as administrative expenses that were 118 percent above national averages.

The report also raised questions about purchasing procedures, oversight of consultants, and unreported employee fringe benefits.

Besides the audit, Mr. Antonucci said that poor test scores, a high dropout rate, and low student attendance were evidence of a "lack of serious action to improve the education and achievement of Lawrence students."

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