Troubled Mass. District Seeks Cooperation With State Officials

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Last month's elections in Lawrence, Mass., have set the stage for a more cooperative relationship between the state school board and the city's school committee.

The mayoral and school committee races were fought and won this year on the issue of reforming schools, and the city's newly elected leaders are extending an early olive branch to state leaders in hopes of tempering state efforts to seize control of the embattled 12,000-student system.

"We want the state to give us a chance," Suzanne McHugh Piscitello, a newly elected member of the Lawrence school committee, said in a recent interview. "We were elected to clean up schools. They need to give us some time. Now if they want to help us, they are welcome. We need all the help we can get."

The state school board took a major step toward putting the school district into receivership when it voted last summer to declare the system "chronically underperforming." Board members cited both the loss of accreditation of Lawrence's only high school and a subsequent systemwide audit that found financial irregularities and potential illegalities under ousted Superintendent James F. Scully. ("Mass. Board Moves To Take Over Lawrence Schools," June 25, 1997.)

The $80 million annual budget of the Lawrence schools, which are located in one of the poorest cities in the nation, is financed almost entirely by the state. Most Massachusetts districts are funded through a combination of local property taxes and state dollars.

Ms. Piscitello and other school committee members say they hope to fix the district's problems with the help, but not the direct rule, of the state.

"I think everyone feels encouraged by the recent elections," Michael R. Sweeney, also newly elected to the school committee, said. "We all ran on reform and want to make the school system accountable to everyone."

Mr. Sweeney said he is "willing to accept assistance from the state, but within limits."

"We want them to work with us, not for us," he said.

Cooling Off

Late last month, Essex County Superior Court Judge Robert Bohn Jr., who serves as a mediator between the state school board and city leaders, gave state Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci the green light to appoint a financial adviser for the district. The adviser was appointed with the blessing of Lawrence's interim school superintendent, Kenneth R. Siefert.

"The way issues in Lawrence are going to be worked out is with the commissioner of education and Lawrence superintendent sitting down and mapping out a plan for the district," Mr. Siefert said last month.

State school officials say that process is already under way.

"There's an ongoing, constructive communication between the school board and the present and incoming mayor and school committee," said Jan Feldman, the spokeswoman for the state education department.

She said that a fact-finding team appointed by Mr. Antonucci is scheduled to release a report on the Lawrence school system at the next state board meeting, to be held Jan. 12. Some sort of long-term arrangement between the state and the school district could be worked out by the next meeting with Judge Bohn, scheduled for Jan. 22, she said.

"After this cooling-off period, I'm looking forward to everyone talking in a civil manner about how to make schools here better," said Thomas Duggan Jr., who is halfway through a four-year term on the Lawrence school committee. "I think good things can and will come of this new school committee."

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