A One on One Interview with Superintendent-Receiver Jeff Riley – PART 1

Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan does a one on one interview with Lawrence Superintendent/Receiver Jeff Riley, who takes Duggan to task for some previous stories written in The Valley Patriot.
Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan does a one on one interview with Lawrence Superintendent/Receiver Jeff Riley, who takes Duggan to task for some previous stories written in The Valley Patriot.


October, 2013 – Valley Patriot Publisher Tom Duggan sat down with Lawrence Superintendent/Receiver Jeff Riley of the Lawrence Public Schools for a one on one interview. Riley was appointed Receiver of the Lawrence Public Schools by the Massachusetts Department of Education after an 81 page report detailed the lack of leadership of the Lantigua administration and Lantigua’s refusal to appoint a replacement for Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy. The Schools were deemed “chronically underperforming”.

TD: How long have you been here?

JR: A little over 18 months. I came in at the end of January of 2012.

TD: Going through the state report, the lack of leadership of Mayor Lantigua was the primary reason for taking over the schools. Was there more to that?

JR: “I’m not sure. I try to stay out of what happened in the past. When I first came on board, people told me to look at the school committee meetings. But I wanted to look at it [the school district] with a fresh set of eyes.

When I first came here there were so many people who said blow up the school system, turn it all into charter schools. I just kind of wanted to stay out of it and do my own assessment. So, from the end of January to June [of 2012] what we did was, we just looked very carefully at everything and try to create a plan.

The plan is very different than has been done in your typical state government plan, we are decentralizing the power We cut a lot of people out of this building (central offices) a third of the people are gone. We put the money down at the schools, and put the local control down at the school level.

I spent a lifetime as a principal evading and ignoring the central office in Boston. It shouldn’t have to be that way. You know, sometimes a central office takes on the function of compliance, and command and control, these huge bureaucracies; everyone thinks their own little department is the most important thing in the world.

When you are a principal in the field you don’t need that stuff. You need people who are going to support you and help you, so we tried to pivot this place away from that kind of command and control, compliance organization to: ‘we now work directly for the schools; 95% of my job is to make their lives easier. There’s always going to be some state and federal compliance stuff you have to do, but most of our work should be about helping them to do the work that they do because that’s where it all happens.

My fundamental orientation is as a school principal, and when they asked me to come here I was very clear; we are not going to go with the game plan of doubling the size of central office, command and control, I’m Darth Vader, and let’s tell everyone what to do.

You know that’s the same cookie cutter model that has proven over and over in education not to work. Over and over, yet they still keep doing it and I just didn’t believe in that.

Then you have people saying you have 1,000 flowers blooming in the field and you have to have some structure. We’ve got some light structures in place, we do. There are efficiencies when you order food and supplies. That we can do, to be helpful to the schools here. But some of the other stuff is unnecessary, and is not a good use of what I would say, is the taxpayers’ money.

We get the fact that more than 95% of the money that’s coming to Lawrence Schools doesn’t come from here. It’s the taxpayers across the state. They are footing the bill for this place. So, I’ve got a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that we are spending it the right way, and I think the right way is by putting the resources down at the school level to add things like more time (on learning).

We try to pay teachers in a fair way, they haven’t had a pay raise in over three years so we finally gave them a raise. But, give the kids the textbooks they need, enrichment programs they need, the academic interventions that they need. There is nothing wrong with the kids in Lawrence. This is a true American story here.

My great-grandmother was born in Lawrence, worked in the mills in Lawrence and did some sewing. [Ella T. Kelleher born in 1899]. My family came out of here and moved up because they worked hard. You’ve got the same thing happening here today. You’ve got new immigrant populations, the parents care about the kids, the kids are working hard, but we haven’t been aligned in doing what’s right for them. And that is what we are trying to get done.

TD: Talk about transparency. We hear complaints that you and central office are just not telling people what is really going on, which gives way to conspiracy theories about what is really happening over here. Address that.

JR: [Laughs} Conspiracy theories run really wild in this town, I’ll tell ya. I thought I was pretty politically savvy. You know I have been in the trenches in Boston for a long time. But, I’ve got to give Lawrence a lot of credit. It’s a whole new ball game here as far as the conspiracy theories and all that other stuff goes. Listen, some of it is probably warranted. There’s been a lot of negative stuff going on here. My understanding is you had the previous superintendent, that wasn’t a good situation, obviously. But we have tried to be pretty open in our process, and I would dispute this ‘lack of transparency’ thing.

Because of state receivership, I have the ability to have the authority of the school committee and the superintendency and not meet with the school committee.

Instead, I chose to meet with the school committee. I don’t have to do that. I could stop that tomorrow if I wanted to. But, I’ve chosen to meet with the school committee. I have chosen to give them information. But people still, probably for their own political reasons, want to paint it as a lack of transparency.

Tom, you sent us a public records request as soon as we got here. We gave you that stuff right away. We are willing to give records. We’re not here to hide anything. We are here to do the work for the kids. If people have questions, we want to answer them. We put the budget on line. You know, there are people who throw stones just to thrown stones. And some of it is for their own political gain. But the reality is, if people ask me questions, we are here for them. If you want to send me a public records request every day, bring it on. If you want to come and ask me questions I’ve got [the answers] for you.

TD: Well let’s get into that. We have written some stories that have not been exactly positive towards you.

JR: Yeah, I’ve heard that. Some not factually correct.

TD: Then I guess my question is: as the superintendent/receiver why would you allow information that you think is incorrect to stay out there in the community and not pick up the phone or send an email and give us the correct information, so we can correct it with our readers? If the information is incorrect, why would you allow it to hang out there?

JR: Well, let me turn the question around on you. Why wouldn’t you call us to check the veracity of some of the erroneous reports you’ve been getting. I mean, you have one report where you said I wasn’t certified to be the superintendent. Come on! I couldn’t be a deputy superintendent in Boston if I didn’t have the license. I got the license five years ago and I still have license. I mean you’ve got people saying I’ve been here for three years; I’ve been here a year and a half. You had a report that I’m adding the size of central office. At the end of the day the truth is the truth. And if you want to call me on it, I will tell you the story. But, I don’t need to go out of my way to correct things.

I’m a big boy I can take the hit.

TD: When someone write a story about me, and unfortunately that happens more than it should, If they get something wrong, I pick up the phone and tell them they got it wrong.

JR: I have a job to do Tommy.

TD: Isn’t PR part of your job?

JR: Unfortunately it has to be sometimes. But, sometimes I just have to take my hits and move on and do what I have to do. Last year was a tough year for us. In 18 months we’ve done some pretty serious restructuring. I mean, to let go one third of the central office, to replace almost half of the principals, to look at the bottom 10% of the teachers…you know and this is important to me…so many people said turn it all into charter schools. I came and looked at it and I found that about 90% of the people here were great teachers, good teachers, or working hard to improve.

And I said to myself, I can work with these people.

We did have to make some tough decisions with some teachers who were not doing the job and not doing right by kids. But, this reorganization has been more about leadership and central office. That’s where most of the pain has been. And I read all your stuff, Tom. You say I increased the central office by $6M.

[Editor’s note: Jeff Riley’s budget figures show the increase in central office was $6M].

Had you called me and asked me about that, I would have said we are in discussions with the unions about the contract. The money is going to be paying for expanded learning time. It’s not coming up here. You walk through this building now, it’s a ghost town. We just have room everywhere, which is why on Tuesday, we are starting a working group with the school committee to look at the viability of this [building] lease [at central office on Essex Street] going forward. I’m probably going to ask Pavel Payano to head that committee.

TD: Are you trying to kiss my ass, now?

JR: No, no. Listen, I brought this up long before you and I ever talked. I brought this up on camera at an open school committee meeting, and you know that because you heard about this.

The first thing we did when we got here was, we got in a couple of people to support the work [we were going to do]. And the design guy who has a budget background, the first thing he says is, ‘you guys are paying $400,000 for a lease that’s no longer your responsibility and hasn’t been for years.’

Because, after three years the city is on the hook for paying for school buildings. So, the school district has been footing the bill for this building for years. This guy saved me 400 grand the first day he walked in the door. We have to decide within a year and a half if we need to go somewhere else, or if we need less space here.

Those are the only two options. I think this school system has paid for this building several times over.

I have a responsibility to the taxpayers. I have to make sure we are functioning at a very high level. With $400,000 dollars I now have more money to spend on my kids, right? You see, this is personal for me Tommy. My kids go to the Boston Public Schools. City kids don’t get the same education as Lexington and Sudbury do. It’s not the same thing. So, it is personal for me and I want to make sure we are spending our dollars wisely.

And I am not complaining about the budget. There was no extra money that came with receivership, but we do get a lot of money to make this a better place to educate kids. So, we didn’t ask for any more money for receivership. Sure, we apply for competitive grants, we will go out and ask foundations for money if we can, the Celtics came in and redid the gym floor at the Bruce School recently, we will hustle that way. But, we have to be responsible with what we do with our dollars.

What you do with your money is a statement of what you believe. And for us, what we are saying is; what we believe is that the schools are where the resources should be. It’s as simple as that.