DOE: No Exit Plan in Lawrence

Massachusetts Officials Have No Plan to Fix
Lawrence Schools and No Exit Plan or Timetable to Leave

By: Tom Duggan – June, 2012

Suzanne Bump, Massachusetts Sate Auditor
State Auditor Suzanne Bump

Massachusetts Commissioner of Education Mitch Chester stood on a stage at the South Lawrence East School last month flanked by Lawrence Mayor William Lantigua, City Councilor Dan Rivera, State Representative Paul Adams, Maura Banta, Chairman of the State Board of Education, receiver Jeff Riley, and others. The purpose was to unveil and explain to the public Receiver Jeff Riley’s six-point turnaround plan for the school system.

Under the receivership plan the Lawrence School Committee has no legal authority for the budget and finances of the Lawrence Schools,hiring or firing of staff, nor do they possess policy making authority.  ReceiverRiley, who came from the Boston Public Schools, has been appointed by Education Commissioner Mitchell and holds all the full legal authority to act as the school committee and Superintendent.

Here’s how Riley explained the“Plan” he produced over the last six months:

“I want to highlight the six key themes of the plan:

#1:Combining the best of Lawrence and the best of the Commonwealth. There are great things happening inside the city already.

I am pleased to announce Michael Qualters will be taking over as Head Master of Lawrence High School. As we begin to consolidate our central office.

Again to consolidate our central office I am pleased to announce Anne Marie Stronachwill be covering, not only nutrition services but also, our HR department.

Shalimar Quilesa Lawrence High School graduate in 2006, will be our director of student engagement and support.

Raymond Nunez will be our new Basketball coach.

These and other appointments will be forthcoming for people that are already inside the system that are doing great things. We want to combine these folks with proven outside partners.

The second key theme of this plan is more great schools for our kids. We are going to work towards great schools in every neighborhood and empower our teachers and principals to get results. We don’t expect or insist that schools meet the goals the same way, just that they meet the goals.

Our third theme centers around empowering our teachers and parents in our community. We know that it takes everyone to move the needle and to get change.

#4: Using our resources wisely. The change that is going to happen in the Lawrence Public Schools must be budget neutral and can not require any extra resources beyond what is expected typically of a school system.

#5: We’ve got to implement with a sense of urgency. The time to move is now.

And finally #6:It’s all about results. We need more great schools right now.”

Kevin Cuff, State Representative candidate for the 17th Essex District and who was in attendance for the announcement said Riley’s plan needs to include more parental involvement.

“As presented, the Riley Plan is extremely aggressive on expected results; coupled with a very quick turnaround time, that, sounded really good, but it made me a little hesitant. In addition, the Plan has had limited parental outreach which, will l be critical for the Plan’s overall success. And, ultimately there will have to be a transition plan back to the city and the community which was never mentioned, but again this is a critical strategic piece for the Plan to work. We were privy to hear about the new basketball coach, however!”

No Parent Involvement

Mitchell ChesterDuring the press conference Riley took questions from the press. The Valley Patriot asked, “How come you haven’t met yet with the parents? I know that the commissioner has met with the parents, but we have had a number of calls in our newsroom by the parents complaining because you have not met with them and talked to them about input on this turnaround plan. Why weren’t they involved, why wouldn’t you meet with them?”

Receiver Riley’s answer: “Well, I think the parents were involved in the local stakeholders group. Additionally, I have met with parents. Just last night, in fact, I met with over 40 parents from the PTO and gave them an early edition of the plan, before it was even released to the press. So, we have been talking to parents all along. We recognize, however, what we are asking for with the plan is greater parental involvement.”

With approximately twelve thousand students in the school system it should be noted that only two parents sat on the stakeholder group and forty(40) PTO parents had been spoken to on the eve of the ‘Plan’ release rather than reaching out to more parents for input over the last six months.

After the event, Lawrence School Committeeman, Jen Cooper, said that she has heard similar concerns from parents when she is dropping off and picking up her two children who attend Lawrence Public Schools.

 “What it tells me is that parents are feeling disconnected because nobody is talking to them directly at the school or district level about their children’s education. I think every parent would agree that we need to meet the goals in the Plan, but they want to know the steps that will be taken to reach those milestones. One parent told me that she felt the plan sounded great, but too vague.”

Cooper welcomed the role of the Department of Education, but said she is cautious, “We need all the help we can get I just want to be cautious about who we are letting in and the long term plans. I need to feel confident the decisions the Receiver makes today are going to positively impact our children and our city three to five years from now when the state is gone.”

What aren’t they telling us?

Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin  was asked if he could tell us what they wouldn’t tell us during the press conference announcing the turnaround plan.

“I can’t tell you what they won’t tell you yet, but I will be able to tell you, probably in a couple of days. I did have an meeting on this turnaround plan yesterday at 10 O’clock and it was just basically, a conversation for about a half of an hour. I received the plan about 9:00 last night, I read through it, ’til probably about 11:30 and then I got up again in the middle of the night and read through it again. So, it’s an interesting plan, an ambitious plan. One thing that I will say, is that the children of Lawrence need to be served. They really haven’t received the resources that they should have over the years. So, that is a good beginning. The Lawrence Teacher’s Union and the receivers share the same goal and aspirations for the children of Lawrence and have worked cooperatively as he and the commissioner have developed this plan. As Jeff Riley said in today’s local newspaper reported this morning that we will not be turned around with a top down plan and we look forward to a true collaboration for the months and years ahead.”

NO Public Information – No oversight of Public Dollars

The Valley Patriot sent in a request under the Freedom of Information Act in February of this year. The Law states that public records must be turned over within ten days of the request being received.

To date Commissioner Mitchell has refused to comply with our request for a copy of receiver Riley’s Contract , a copy of emails between the Commissioner, Receiver , Lantigua or his staff, Governor Patrick or anyone on his staff, going back to 2009, a copy of the service contract between the Receiver and the District and other information.

The Valley Patriot caught up to the Commissioner after the press conference on the turnaround plan and asked him why he had yet to comply with our request.

“I’m not up to speed on what the request was I’d have to check on that.”

When asked whether or not the Department of Education had an “exit strategy” to leave the city and turn the school system back over to Lawrence officials and restore local control, Chester responded, “We do not have a specific time table to leave, you heard me in my comments, this is not a two or three year proposition, it’s at least four, five or six years,” Mitchell said.

“This is new for everybody,” said School Committeeman Jennifer Cooper when talking about the limited number of school districts’ nationally which have been taken over by their home state.

“When a public school system is taken out of the hands of local voters and parents that’s where it gets frustrating and it should be frustrating because we didn’t get it right for decades. As Americans we were not raised to accept a process by which our say is taken away from us, especially when it comes to our children. We don’t feel comfortable and we shouldn’t get comfortable. As a community we need to recognize what our powers are and be proactive, some of which may be, to ask questions at school committee meetings, insiston transparency and accountability, and ask for regular benchmark reports to make sure we are on track to meet the results outlined in the Plan. We all have to be part of the process to have it work for Lawrence.”

State Auditor Suzanne Bump on Fiscal Oversight

Since the Takeover of the Lawrence Public Schools by the Massachusetts Department of Education, there is no longer an elected body overseeing how education dollars are being spent on Lawrence.

The Receiver and the Commissioner of Education can contract with any private vendor, education foundation, non-profit or 501c3 organization with no oversight.

State Auditor Suzanne Bump was asked about Lawrence Schools and oversight of the millions of additional dollars being spent since the state takeover.

 “The state auditor’s office doesn’t play an ongoing role in oversight. The role of the state auditor’s office is to be backward looking,” Bump responded. And although we aren’t currently auditing the expenditure money, we can have a role in it after the fact, determining how well that money was spent in a given chunk of time and frankly, that may well be already in our audit plan for another year or so out.”

“When we do that we’ll be looking to make sure that it (the money) was being spent according to standards that were set, the systems that were in place to guard against its abuse and its waste and we may learn from that how to ensure that the state resources do get invested in a community that way, and that there is accountability and transparency and we get what the taxpayers are expecting.”

Asked if there was anyone watching over the state money being poured into Lawrence, Bump responded.

“Well, I know that there are folks in the Governor’s Executive Office of Administration and Finance that are charged with the responsibility to see that the money is being put into maintaining city services and trying to get the finances in order. I haven’t had any recent updates on that, so I don’t know what the current assessment is of that expenditure.”

Asked if the Auditor had any oversight as to how private foundations were spending money in the schools she replied.

“The state auditor follows the money that is being spent by state agencies and by those organizations, public or private that spend state money. So, if there is not state money involved in those private education foundations, we would not be able to go there. We would not have the authority to look at that.”

Asked about the role of non-profits doing business with public schools and who oversees the injection of non-profits into the classroom, Bump said:

“The office of the Attorney General has a non-profit or charitable bureau that would have to make sure that an organization is meeting its public purpose and that is wasn’t compromising it’s tax exempt status by virtue of its activities. I would think that the department of education would have some say as to the injection of private money into classroom activities, but that is something that, as I say, if there is not state money involved, then I can’t look at that.

But as I mentioned, using our resources in the auditor’s office is to focus on areas of greatest risk to tax payers. The amount of money that gets spent, not directly by state agencies, but by organizations with whom the state contracts for services has greatly expanded over recent decades.

Now, 70% of the money that gets spent in state government is actually spent by contractors, not state agencies directly. That means that I need to be focusing much more of my attention there. So, we have started a much more comprehensive program of auditing non-profit organizations. We are working with the state agencies who have some insight into non-profits that they think may be problematic and we are also working with non-profit organizations themselves, in order to enhance the controls they have over the money to make sure that it’s being spent properly.

I think you are asking the right questions and you are headed in the right direction and I guess you have given me something to think about.”