By: Tom Duggan, May, 2009
Lawrence School Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy granted an exclusive interview with The Valley Patriot where he discussed for the first time to anyone, the details of recent media scandals involving his office, teachers and principals under his command and the spate of bad publicity in the daily newspaper concerning the Lawrence Public Schools.
Laboy has been under fire most recently because Mark Rivera (Special Assistant to the Superintendent) and private consultant Harry Maldonado were misusing school department computer software to run background record checks. Maldonado was subsequently dismissed and Mark Rivera resigned when it was learned that background checks were being conducted on political candidates, police officers, elected and appointed officials, members of the media and even celebrities.
But. Laboy says that even though he was unaware of the activities of Maldonado and Rivera he is “very saddened and embarrassed” that the incident happened and says he is sorry to everyone whose privacy was violated.
Laboy also addressed for the first time what he called “media generated scandals filled with half truths” including: a teacher who was reportedly fired for letting her students bring pasta to class, a principal who reportedly tried to sell her novel in her school, and Lawrence High students who were drinking in the school.
“It’s been nine years and as you know, when I arrived here this school district was chronically under-performing. We had lost accreditation and were facing the possibility of a state takeover. The Lawrence Public Schools were not in good shape. In the year 2001, when our kids took MCAS competency determination the 10th grade class had a 23% passing rate. It was terrible. I was horrified by those results,” Laboy explained.
We had a school district that had no student achievement at any level, and what we have seen in the nine years since I have been here is, consistent achievement in grades across the district. In the year 2004, we got accreditation back. An attendance rate that was abysmal at the high school level when I arrived, now, not only exceeded attendance rates in the elementary schools, in the middle school and high school we went from 83% average daily attendance to 92%,” he said.
“This year we will celebrate what I believe is the 1st ever Stanford acceptance by a Lawrence High Student. Her name is Natasha Diaz.”
“You don’t hear those stories, you don’t read about those stories. We are getting results in the classroom where it counts and more kids are going to better colleges and more kids are getting a better education than when I arrived. The burden is trying to get that message out over the loud cries by the teachers union about how awful our schools are.”
“We’ve built over 12 educational buildings in Lawrence since I arrived. Three major complexes, 9 buildings on the highs school campus. We have been able to give Lawrence children a school system that went from 251st in the state as far as providing an education to English language, to being ranked third in the state. We moved up 248 places in a matter of eight years,” he continued.
“We are making sure our kids are learning English and succeeding. I think there are some real milestones we have been able to accomplish and when people evaluate Wilfredo Laboy as a superintendent, I would hope they put all the outrageous headlines in perspective with what we have been able to accomplish here in a little more than 8 years,” concluded Laboy.
LEXIS NEXIS:Criminal, Credit and Background Checks done with school software.
Laboy said that he had no knowledge that Harry Maldonado and Mark Rivera were using school software to run criminal, credit and background checks on people outside the scope of their work for the Lawrence Public Schools. He added that he believes the Eagle Tribune has “an agenda” to force him out of his job by creating such negative misperceptions about him and his role in various incidences to whip up public sentiment against him.
“I took full responsibility for what happened. I can’t defend their actions, they were horrible. But people need to remember my name was checked, members of my family’s privacy were violated. My father’s name was run and he passed away 15 years ago. People tend to forget that. But remember, it wasn’t just Mark Rivera, it was Harry Maldonado who owns his own private investigation business and he was using it for that purpose with school department software. There were many instances where he ran the software off school site for his private business.”
“What most people don’t know is that Mark Rivera recommended that I hire Harry Maldonado, and I did. Now he (Maldonado) is claiming he warned me about what he and Mark were up to. Now just imagine what he wants people to believe here. He wants people to believe he came to me and ratted on himself to get Mark Rivera in trouble and by doing so put himself and his own job in jeopardy.”0
“Seriously, does anyone really believe that Harry Maldonado, who was using this for his business, was going to tell on himself so that he couldn’t do these background checks anymore? Please! Harry never told me prior to all this coming out and I think if people really analyze his version of the story they will see how little sense it really makes.”
Laboy said that despite the fact that he has apologized and taken full responsibility for what happened, some in the community are purposely trying to take advantage of the situation to settle old scores and distort the truth about what happened. “I am sorry to everyone on that list who had their privacy violated. I am sorry it happened. I share the burden of leadership and I understand that as superintendent I am the face of the Lawrence public schools. I also understand that with that burden of responsibility I get the blame or the credit for whatever happens under me. But we have 2,200 employees. It is impossible for me to be able to look over the shoulder of every employee, and know what they are all doing at all times. Even the ones who work close to me in my office. It’s just not possible.”
“But I am also sorry that Mr. Maldonado didn’t come to me privately and do what he now claims he did; tell me about what was going on and give me the chance to get to the bottom of it internally,” he said.
“What happened instead is, he learned about an investigation into the Lexus Nexus background checks and to save himself, went behind my back and started telling stories to the police department.”
“I first found out about Lexis Nexis when I got a call from the police that they were looking into this, not before that. But what is really interesting, talking about the agenda of the media, The Valley Patriot has been the only newspaper to have the integrity to come right out and ask me if I knew about the background checks. Nobody else in the media has even bothered to ask me that question. The rest of them just speculate and leave the question out there hanging in the mind of the public.”
“I think naturally, the take some people will have on this is that Mark Rivera was my assistant and I did hire Harry Maldonado so obviously some are going to try and make the connection that I knew or I was part of it. But, since the onset, I have been very clear that I was as surprised as anyone else when I found
out. I was saddened by it. I think it was a lack of judgement on both of heir parts.”
Laboy has previously refused to comment on the issue to the media but said that his silence on the issue was first out of embarrassment that it happened on his watch, but secondly out of frustration with the media whom he said is only interested in twisting his own words to make him look bad.
“Obviously, anytime I try to explain things to the daily newspaper they take my words out of context and paint a very different picture than the reality of what is going on. So, I now have to be very selective about what media outlets I talk to. I know that The Valley Patriot is going to print what I say in context for good or bad, and won’t twist my words to fill some agenda. It’s my hope that people don’t misinterpret my silence prior to now as any kind of an admission of wrongdoing on my part. It has simply been embarrassing for me and the school system and if I thought for a minute I could get a fair shake from the rest of the media I would probably have spoken out a little more and a little sooner. But, when you can’t win with certain people, why talk to them. It only makes things worse.”
SPECIAL ASSISTANT MARK RIVERA
“Mark Rivera left us without anything in his hands. There were no sick days or vacation days or buybacks given to him as some people have publicly stated. It is painful to see someone who served me well and having such an error in judgement that cost him to lose his job. He was a friend and of course it is painful but I honestly don’t think there was any malice on the part of Mark Rivera. He paid a heavy price and prior to an investigation being concluded, he opted to resign on his own to hopefully spare us more damaging headlines. I am disappointed that he did this and saddened that it has cast a negative light on the Lawrence Public Schools. But, I don’t know what more people want. Some people wouldn’t be happy if he was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. Those people will never be happy. Trying to address their concerns and make them happy is a total waste of time. All I can do is keep coming to work every day and focus on the job of educating kids.”
“Look, after all the headlines about illegality, allegations claiming that laws were broken and public assertions that people were going to be dragged off in handcuffs, the District Attorney himself has said that nothing criminal occurred here. It just didn’t rise to the level of criminal activity. These are the characterizations in the newspaper that feed the haters and the nay-sayers, and drive a public debate, not about what we are accomplishing for our kids but, how to score political points in the community and how to demonize me and the Lawrence schools. I say it’s just not fair. It’s not right. It’s not fair to me, but more importantly, it’s not fair to the rest of the hard working school employees who get tarnished as well by these bogus assertions and sometimes outright lies.”
“With all the mudslinging that has been thrown at us, and at me particularly, none of it has been able to stick. But it does shape public perception and it turns people off. That often ties our hands when we are trying to trumpet the accomplishments of our students and our faculty because all people want to talk about is the latest headline and the latest accusation.”
EAGLE TRIBUNE AGENDA
“We know the Tribune has a clear agenda to dispose of me as superintendent. They make it quite obvious with their biased coverage and their attacks on me and the Lawrence Schools. They want to drive me out of my job but I am not leaving. I will leave when my time is up. I will say that when I leave the city of Lawrence I will leave with my head held high and my shoulders square because of all that we’ve accomplished. I have a contract that needs to be honored and I’m not going to leave because a daily newspaper wants me out. I don’t work for them.”
“I think there is an element where some people perceive my boldness and my strong personality as arrogance. I understand that. But I think the people have to ask themselves, are the Lawrence public schools better off now than when I arrived here eight years ago? The Eagle Tribune never asks that question and they certainly never answer it. And if they look at the numbers, if they look at our achievement and they weigh those out, they will have to say yes.”
“Obviously, if people only read about or hear about the personality issues, the politics, or public opinion which is driven by the political agenda of the Eagle Tribune and ignore the rest of the picture, they will draw a different conclusion. All I have ever asked is for people to judge me fairly. Judge me on my mistakes and my failings but put into perspective with my accomplishments and judge the whole picture not the distorted image the Eagle Tribune and some of the other newspapers portray.
DISPELLING THE MYTHS The Lasagna incident:
“The daily paper printed a story recently about how a teacher was fired simply for letting her students bring lasagna to school. That’s just not the case. Here is a teacher that was told if she was going to have cooking with her class to do it in the cafeteria and not in her classroom. She agreed to do this in the cafeteria but, then decided on her own to move the activity to her classroom without permission. When it was over her classroom was a mess, it was in really bad shape. There was sauce stuck on the walls and on top of it all, when we tried to address the issue with her, she was very confrontational. You didn’t read that in the story printed in the daily paper. All you read was that Wilfredo Laboy and the principal were picking on her.”
Laboy said he was also distressed at how isolated incidents in the schools tend to find their way into the pages of the newspaper but communities like Andover and North Andover never seem to have that kind of “chronic publicity problem.”
EAGLE TRIBUNE CALLS IT A “DRINKING PARTY”
“We had kids doing what kids all over America are unfortunately doing, sneaking alcohol into school. This was four kids who snuck alcohol into the school, and the daily paper called it a ‘drinking party.’ How do they call four kids sneaking drinks into school a drinking party? They convey a mental image in the mind of their readers that Lawrence High is out of control and there are ‘drinking parties’ going on. Now, the principal certainly had a lapse in judgement in not informing the police, I agree with that. But, now there were three school safety officers who were asked about the cameras and because they didn’t answer the question exactly the way the police wanted them to, they are being criminally charged.”
SCHOOL PRINCIPAL WRITES RACY NOVEL
“Principal Gagnon has been an honorable principal who has served with distinction. She came to us in 2005. She had written a romance mystery novel, and she was excited about that. Unfortunately for her, she shared that information with her staff and people at the school and some who have it out for her turned the story into one where she was trying to sell the book at the school or profit in the schools. And that is what the paper printed. But it’s just not the case. It was blown way out of proportion. I haven’t read the novel, but this is America and people are entitled to their own opinions. They are entitled to publish what they want to publish. My evaluation of the principal is based on what she did in that school every single day. Her performance as more than satisfactory and she was a wonderful principal. Why would I fire a principal because she wrote a novel? Does she lose her free speech rights because she is a teacher? I don’t think that is right. She has now gone out on medical leave and she is emotionally distraught by this story. I just hope she gets well, but having her name muddied in the paper like that certainly didn’t help.”
Last month, mayoral candidate Israel Reyes called for the superintendent to be fired, but Mayor Sullivan says there are no legal grounds to terminate his contract. and he will not support removing Laboy.
“Unless someone can show me that Wilfredo Laboy himself has done something worth being fired over, I think it’s a big mistake to put the city in jeopardy of another lawsuit by another superintendent where we have to pay out millions of dollars for violating a contract,” Sullivan said.