Lawrence school receiver cuts central office staff by 30%

Savings go to schools

Two years ago, when Jeff Riley was put in charge of Lawrence’s failing school system under a new state law, he made a surprising declaration for someone who had just been handed broad authority over virtually every aspect of the district’s operation: He was not planning to use those powers as a state-appointed “receiver” to impose a sweeping plan on Lawrence from the central school office and then micromanage every aspect of its implementation.

“I always felt the resources were better spent at the school level,”
says Jeff Riley, the state-appointed receiver of the Lawrence schools.

Instead, Riley said he was coming to Lawrence in order help its schools take charge of their own turnaround, with the district administration there to play a supporting role, not to dictate everything in a command-and-control structure.

“This idea that I’m going to come in and suddenly be Darth Vader and everyone has to march in lockstep—this one-size-fits-all, blanket approach that we’ve seen over and over in urban education reform doesn’t work,” Riley said at the time (“High-stakes test,” CW, Fall 2012).

As part of his vow to decentralize authority in Lawrence, Riley said he wanted to shrink the size of the central office and push more resources into schools.

Now, he’s followed through on that. Since last spring, the central administration office in Lawrence has shed nearly 30 percent of its positions, down from 95 people to 65 to 70, says Riley. With that, he has pushed $1.6 million of the savings into the schools to help fund, among other things, the added school hours that all students in grades 1-8 are getting this year.

“I’ve worked in large bureaucratic school systems, and I always felt the resources were better spent at the school level,” says Riley, a former Boston school administrator. Riley says seven or eight administrators were laid off, while the rest of the positions were eliminated through retirements or by having those personnel move back to school-based positions.

In shifting some of savings to schools, he was able to help fund the added hours in Lawrence schools as well as support enrichment activities. Those include everything from musical theater to debate teams and swimming programs. “Things that suburban kids take for granted but my kids don’t always have access to,” says Riley. “Things that don’t always show up on the MCAS, but I think are essential in life.”

Riley says a well-rounded school experience must include more than just core academics. But raising student achievement is nonetheless the first order of business in Lawrence, the first—and so far only—Massachusetts district put in receivership under a 2010 education reform law that allows the state to take over chronically underperforming school systems. In 2011, less than 30 percent of students were proficient in math and only about 41 percent tested proficient in English.

Scores from last year, the first under state receivership, were encouraging. Though English scores remained flat, math proficiency was up sharply, to 38 percent, the biggest growth recorded among any of the state’s Gateway Cities. The district also saw a big jump in its graduation rate, from 52 percent to 61 percent, and a decrease in the drop-out rate.

Riley, a former Boston school principal, angered the Lawrence Teachers Union by using the receivership powers to review every teacher’s performance when he took over in 2011. Riley has the authority to trump most provisions of the existing teachers’ contract, and about 10 percent of the teaching force was let go following the reviews. The teachers union has two unfair labor practice filings pending with the state Labor Relations Board, and is supporting legislation on Beacon Hill that would restore some of the collective bargaining rights taken away by the receivership.

But Riley was much more aggressive in making change among school principals, with nearly half of the city’s principals replaced. “I think a lot the problem was leadership,” Riley says of the district’s woes.

School reform efforts have often adopted one of two contrasting approaches: a strong, top-down strategy overseen by a central office, or a highly decentralized approach. Proponents of the latter are sometimes called “relinquishers” because of their belief in handing full control over to individual school leaders.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Riley certainly leans in that direction, but he has favored a third approach. “We call what we’re doing ‘open architecture,’” he says, describing a more flexible model in which schools are accorded increasing degrees of autonomy from the central office based on their ability to deliver strong results.

As for the first year results under the turnaround plan, Riley sounds pleased but is guarded in making big claims. We are “cautiously optimistic,” he says.