Last Year, Valley Patriot publisher Tom Duggan sat down with Jeff Riley, the man tapped by the Massachusetts Department of Education to run the Lawrence Schools after putting the city schools into receivership. This year we did a follow up interview to see what has changed for the good and bad. Here is Part I of that Interview.
DUGGAN: The last time we talked you were telling us your goals of drop out rates, graduation rates, some of the problems you were having with the members of the old regime, can you give us an update on where the Lawrence schools are now as compared to our interview last year?
RILEY: I think we have been here a little under three years. We had some real tough times in the beginning; I had to make some rapid changes. We let about 10% of the teachers go, but I felt like most of the teachers in Lawrence were actually pretty good. They got bashed a lot. With that in mind, I though the problem was the failure in leadership, so I cut 50% of the principals and then I reduced the size of central office by a third.
One of the biggest lies of American education today is this huge central bureaucracy. The reality is when I was a principal, I spent a lifetime evading and ignoring central office because I had to do my job. They had all these people who wanted to do all this work bothering principals who were trying to really focus on teaching. So, we cut the size of central office so obviously that plays into this whole lease situation where we don’t need the same amount of space.
So, looking at the first 18 months, nobody likes letting people go, but it had to be done. There was no extra money that came with receivership so we had to work within our budget. Lawrence has historically met the net school spending and it’s kind of under the gun to do that.
DUGGAN: For those who don’t know, explain what ‘net school spending” is?
RILEY: There’s a minimum threshold that the state says where schools have to fund their schools with. There’s a formula that goes into it (certain dollar amount per student). So basically what they say is you have to fund at 100%. Most school systems do fund at 100% and take in their tax base over it. So somebody like Boston might need 120%, for a crazy school system like Cambridge it might be 150%. In Lawrence we have historically been at a 98-99% level. We’ve actually hit a threshold now where, if we continue this and we go below the 95% threshold, the state threatens to take all of your funding from you. That would be calamitous.
In credit to the new mayor he funded us this year at the full, net-school spending amount. He recognized that Lawrence does not have a tax base, we are not asking for additional dollars, we try to go out and work with groups like the Celtics, and The Lynch Foundation to help bring extras into the schools when we need them. But, I am not really interested in having additional money for receivership. I feel like this has to be done inside the school budget.
There’s a lot of waste in the school districts, you know I continue to point to the central office. The only thing that’s analogous to it in the country today, is the scam that’s going on inside colleges across the country, where you’ve got all these assistant deans and provosts, the size of the bureaucracy in these colleges have gone up, it’s skyrocketing. I mean, if you want to spend money spend it on the professors, but they spend it on all these deans and assistants, they are building buildings and all this stuff and in the meantime the costs of these colleges are skyrocketing. Who can afford to go to school? I make a decent salary, how am I going to afford to send my kids?
In ten years it’s going to be over $100,000 a year to send my kids to school. It’s unsustainable but people don’t want to talk about that. Now, am I in favor of reducing loans for student costs? Absolutely. But, why aren’t we talking about the real problem which is this exorbitant spending and these fiefdoms that are being created at these universities?
DUGGAN: What’s different this year from last year and the year before?
RILEY: I think what you saw in this past year was we were one of the most improved school districts in Massachusetts on the MCAS test. Our graduation rate went up significantly from just a few years ago. I think it was around 49-50% to 60%. The most recent graduating class of over 700 kids, we will graduate more kids this summer. So I anticipate that graduation number going up again that will be released late fall, early winter. So, I think we are n a good place as far as that goes, but we have a lot of work to do. Even with the improvement on the test scores we still have so many kids that are not proficient in Math and English.
DUGGAN: We have been told that there are kids who come in and drop out in their sophomore year, disappear and then when they get close to graduation there are people tracking them down at their houses and telling them if they come take this credit recovery program we will give you a diploma to boost the graduation numbers. Any truth to that?
RILEY: I think that’s a complete falsehood. What we’ve done is, and I think I’ve been clear, but there was one story where we had kids that were one or two credits shy of graduation and dropped out, and no one at the high school had gone out to get these kids back in school. So, we did go out and we actively and aggressively pursued kids that were close to graduation to try and get them back in school to get them to evening school, to graduation academies, try to get them to summer school, try to get them to Phoenix or the high school learning center to get them to cross that stage. In the end it’s clear, kids who don’t graduate, financially are doomed.
I would argue that in this day and age, that high school may not even be sufficient for what this next generation of kids needs. I mean, it seems like college in some ways has become the new high school. So, any kid that was brought back was close to earning their diploma did the work to get across that stage.
Even despite lots of absences? What we have been told is that there are numerous kids who lose all kinds of time and then when they get close to graduation they are told all you have to do is take this credit recovery program.
RILEY: I don’t think that’s what’s happening.
DUGGAN: Are there any shenanigans going on?
RILEY: I don’t think there’s any shenanigans going on.
DUGGAN: I’m not saying on your part, but you always have people under you at the high school. There’s nobody over there that’s trying to push the numbers higher?
RILEY: I think what we’ve said too, with the new headmaster coming in, is that we want to streamline what the credit process is over there because there are six different schools who sometimes have different requirements on what it takes, and so it becomes a little subjective from the guidance counselor and the principals at those schools. We are trying to do away with all that. We’ve got accreditation coming up. We need to make sure we have a tight system to get that done. But there are no shenanigans going on.
DUGGAN: The other spate of phone calls we get regularly about shenanigans is that the school system is filtering out teachers that are close to retirement and getting a pension. We hear that once they reach a certain age they are systematically being weeded out to save money. Not by you necessarily but by principals, administrators pressuring them to quit or pushing them out the door.
RILEY: I think that is completely false.
NEXT MONTH: When will the state release control of the Lawrence Schools and turn it back over to local control?