Lawrence, Mass., Reaches Deal With State
On the heels of a scathing review of the Lawrence, Mass., schools, state and local officials have struck a deal that forestalls a takeover of the district but gives the state new oversight authority.
Under the nine-point agreement reached last week, Lawrence officials and Massachusetts schools chief Robert V. Antonucci will name a panel to search for a new superintendent for the 12,000-student district.
State education officials will also open an office in Lawrence, 30 miles north of Boston, to oversee daily operations and provide technical assistance to school administrators.
"It's important to express this as a cooperative agreement," said Deputy Commissioner of Education David Driscoll, who will head the state's oversight efforts. "It's not about control, but cooperation."
Massachusetts is no stranger to outside intervention in local schools. State lawmakers passed special legislation in 1989 that allowed Boston University to run the 5,300-student Chelsea school system under a long-term management contract. ("Silber and Chelsea: A Lasting Legacy?" Nov. 5, 1997.)
But the Lawrence agreement breaks new ground.
It's the first time that the state school board has used its authority to intervene in local schools under the state's 1993 reform law. The deal also establishes an unprecedented link between state and local officials.
"We're in this together, and we both need to produce," Mr. Antonucci said in an interview. "This could be a model for other districts in trouble."
The deal was brokered by Mr. Antonucci and Mayor Patricia Dowling of Lawrence. Ms. Dowling, who could not be reached for comment, is also the chairwoman of the city's school board.
At least one local board member, Tom Duggan, is wary of the power-sharing agreement. "When David Driscoll says he's here to provide technical assistance, I'm going to hold his feet to the fire," he said. "They have to prove something to me."
The Lawrence school board will pick five of the nine members on the superintendent-search panel. The final choice of a district chief must be approved by the local board, the state board, and Mr. Antonucci.
Former Lawrence Superintendent James Scully was fired last August by the local board, which blamed him for mismanagement of the district.
The agreement prohibits Interim Superintendent Kenneth R. Seifert from hiring people to fill permanent administrative posts. Those hires must be made by the new schools chief with the approval of the state oversight team.
In addition to offering technical aid, the oversight team will help develop the district's budgets. The state is providing about $80 million of the system's $83 million budget for this school year.
Depending on annual performance reviews, the state board could end the oversight or go ahead with state receivership of the district.
The state board began studying the possibility of intervening in Lawrence last June, after the district's high school lost its accreditation and a state audit revealed chronic low performance and management irregularities districtwide. ("Mass. Board Moves To Take Over Lawrence Schools," June 25, 1997.)
In response, the state board appointed a five-member fact-finding team to review the district. The team's report was released earlier this month.
While state aid to the Lawrence schools doubled from $40 million in 1993 to its current $80 million, the district's 15.7 percent dropout rate is one of the highest in the state, the report says.
And of 199 Lawrence 11th graders tested last year, only 16 percent read at or above grade level; 55 percent showed reading skills more than two years below grade level. Forty-eight percent of the class did not take the test.
The report acknowledges dramatic changes in the city's student population, 76 percent of whom are now native Spanish-speakers. But it adds that per-pupil spending on bilingual education has increased by more than $2,000 since 1993 without significant student improvement.
What is more, the report criticizes the district for failing to establish demanding performance goals or to unite the community behind its schools.
Lawrence officials faulted the report for ignoring district improvements and for failing to give them a chance to respond to its findings.
"From day one, the staff has been very concerned about the problems," Mr. Seifert, the interim superintendent, said. "What we're looking for is not more about what's not working, but solutions to this."