Oversight of Lawrence schools shifting to state-appointed board

Oversight of Lawrence schools shifting to state-appointed board

Riley leaving after six years, may seek state education commissioner’s post

EDUCATION OFFICIALS UNVEILED the next chapter in state oversight of the Lawrence schools on Wednesday with the announcement that the state receiver, Jeff Riley, will be stepping down at the end of the school year in June and new state-appointed board will oversee the district.

The state took control of the city’s struggling school system in 2011 under provisions of a new state law designed to address chronically low-performing districts like Lawrence. Riley was named receiver/superintendent in 2012 and given sweeping authority over everything from staffing decisions to curriculum and the structure and length of the school day.

The state will continue its control of the district, but will name a “partnership board” that will include local members and state officials to hire and work with the next superintendent.

“It seems like it’s a good next step,” said Jeff Wulfson, the state’s acting education commissioner. “It’s a way of bringing together some of the state folks and local voices.” The new board will assume control of the district on July 1.

Riley said it felt like “the right time” for a change. He said he’s not sure what he’ll do next, but said he is giving thought to applying for the state education commissioner’s post. Wulfson was named acting commissioner in June following the death of the state’s longtime education commissioner, Mitchell Chester, but has said he won’t be a candidate for the permanent appointment.

“It’s something I will consider,” Riley said of the top state education post. “Obviously there’s a deadline coming up.”

Lawrence schools receiver Jeff Riley.

Applications for the state education post are due by December 15.

Wulfson said details of the partnership board still need to be finalized, but he anticipates it will have five to seven members. The state education commissioner will make all appointments to the board, which will become the official receiver for the district. The board will, in turn, hire the next superintendent, with the state commissioner having final approval power over the selection.

“We’re not mincing words about it,” said Wulfson. “It’s still receivership, [the board] will still report to the commissioner.”

But he said there would be “a very different dynamic” with a board that holds regular public meetings and that includes local representation. He said the state is “borrowing a little” from the model being used in Springfield, where a state-local oversight board has authority over a group of 11 schools that remain part of the district but enjoy more flexibility over staffing, curriculum, and other issues.

Wulfson has already asked Mayor Dan Rivera to fill one of the seats on the new Lawrence board. Rivera, who was reelected to a second term last week, campaigned on a platform calling for a return of the schools to local control.

But Rivera praised the state announcement, even if it only nudges things a little bit in that direction, and said he was eager to be part of the new oversight panel. “I look forward to this new shared governance with the state and welcome my role on the board,” Rivera said. “As a product of the Lawrence public school system myself, l will insure the voice of parents, students are first and foremost in our decisions, while also supporting the teachers and staff of the district.”

Frank McLaughlin, the president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, who has tangled with Riley on some issues and also worked with him to move the schools forward, said the announcement is another sign of progress. “We’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “Look at where we’ve come from and look where we’re going.”

The last superintendent before the state takeover wound up in jail on corruption charges, while the student performance in the district of 14,000 students was among the worst in the state.

State officials lauded progress that has been made under Riley. From 2011 to 2016, the percentage of students scoring proficient or advanced on the 10th grade MCAS test has increased by 18 points in math and 24 points in English language arts.

The district’s graduation rate during that time improved by 19 percentage points, while the annual dropout rate fell by more than half.

“Nobody’s claiming victory, but we’ve had some strong results,” said Riley. “We had a plan we wanted to put in place. I felt like we executed on that.”

Under the receivership, Riley brought in charter school operators to run several district schools, the school day was expanded for students in lower grades, and enrichment programs such as music and theater were added to the curriculum.

Riley slashed the central administration staff by one-third and redeployed resources to the schools. He replaced half of the district’s principals, but retained 90 percent of the teachers who were there when he arrived.

“I think we had some issues in Lawrence,” he said. “I did feel there was a failure of leadership,” he said, referring to his decision to sweep out many principals.  But he said he resisted the calls from some who “who said fire all the teachers and turn it all into charter schools.”

Riley said he’s tried to purse a more collaborative path, including having teachers be part of leadership teams at Lawrence schools.

“You can see what happens when people work together on behalf of children,” he said.

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 said a Boston magazine article on Lawrence titled “City of Damned,” which came out around the time he arrived there, proved in some ways to be good thing. “I think in a strange way that spurred a lot of people to say, ‘you’re not going to talk about us that way.’” After nearly six years of work, he said, “we’ve seen some real progress.”