By: Tom Duggan – 11-14-17
Lawrence Superintendent-Receiver Jeff Riley is expected to announce his resignation Wednesday just one week after the reelection of Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera.
Riley was appointed by state officials to run the chronically under-performing school district nearly seven years ago. Since then he has acted as both superintendent and school committee, with full authority over all decisions in the schools. The Lawrence voters elect school committee members who act only as an advisory board but have no authority.
Under receivership, Riley’s authority included nullifying teachers union contracts and the ability to hire and fire teacher at will. This caused immediate hostility from the very political Lawrence Teachers Union and their president Frank McLaughin.
Over the last seven years, the teachers union had very little say over the education of Lawrence school children resulting in historical high test scores in English, math, and science, the drop-out rate cut in half, and the graduation rate up 19 points (graduation rate went from 52% – 71%, the state average is 85%).
Riley was an administrator and principal in the Boston Public Schools prior to being tapped by the state to lead Lawrence.
Riley is expected to make the announcement at a press conference Wednesday at the South Lawrence East School where he and Acting Commissioner of Education Jeff Wulfsun will be speaking. Wulfsun is not applying for the Commissioners job.
Riley, however, is rumored to be applying for the State Commissioner of Education position which became vacant with the untimely death of Mitchell Chester earlier this spring.
Riley was also offered the job as superintendent of the Haverhill school system by Haverhill Mayor Jim Fiorentini. Sources in Haverhill say Riley turned down that offer.
Applications for the state’s top education position are due in December. The state’s board of education is expected to make its’ final decision by February.
The Lawrence Teachers Union was the only municipal union in the city to endorse Mayor Dan Rivera over Willie Lantigua. The police, superior officers, DPW, and fire unions all refused to endorse Rivera.
The union was ever present on the campaign trail, holding signs and donating money to Rivera’s campaign account. Union members told The Valley Patriot during the campaign that they were supporting Rivera because he promised them he would get rid of Riley and fight to regain local control of the schools, meaning raises, benefits, and control over the curriculum for them and their members.
Sending a strong signal to state receiver Riley on the night of his election victory party, Rivera entered the room to the applause of his supporters, flanked by Teachers Union President Frank McLaughlin, who also stood by his side during Rivera’s now famous press conference at the Cladagh pub.
Riley arrived in Lawrence in January of 2012 saying his goals were to focus on academic improvements, fixing the school buildings (which are not under school department control) and bring back arts and enrichment to the school system.
“We have made significant gains in Lawrence,” Riley told the Valley Patriot in October. “I don’t think the mission is complete, but yes right now we are headed in the right direction.”
Sources in city hall say Riley is planning on leaving in June of 2018 (at the end of the school year) to maintain continuity for the administration, staff, and students of the Lawrence Public School System.
Riley recently boasted that Lawrence has one of the most robust ROTC and arts programs in the state, adding that one of his biggest challenges when he arrived was “just getting the school buildings themselves up to date.”
Because the school department has no control over the physical school buildings Riley had to get a waiver from the state early on, so that he could use education funds to fix bathrooms, broken windows, crumbling stairs, etc.
Riley said at the time that the system in Lawrence was “archaic” and that some of the building repairs that were needed were “serious public safety issues” that the city had ignored for years.
Riley recently gained approval from the MSBA (Mass. School Building Authority) to build new buildings and replace some of the older buildings, starting with the Oliver and Lahey Schools. Whether a school building will be torn down and replaced will be determined in the spring as each building is assessed.
Riley has also built an innovative and intensive middle school program called the “Play ball intramural program.”
The program services more than 3,000 kids from grades 5-8. Middle school students participate in multiple sports from track, to football and basketball. Riley has long said that he believed inner city kids are robbed of life learning skills when they are not participating in team sports, theater and other programs.
During the Lawrence High School Alumni Scholarship Dinner in June, Riley said that the one thing that surprised him when he arrived in Lawrence was that it wasn’t as bad as everyone had portrayed it to be.
“I had been told by the people at the Pioneer Institute that we needed to fire all the teacher and turn each of Lawrence’s Schools into charter schools. But, after I assessed the district in my first eight months what I found was that we had some really good people here, really knowledgeable, really dedicated. There was so much more talent here in Lawrence that nobody ever talks about. Remember, when I got here we were considered the “City of the Damned” and the reputation was that the schools were a total disaster. It wasn’t. The assets were in place here, they just needed to be organized better. So, I see my job as harnessing all of this and making it work in a more organized way.”
During a radio interview in 2014, Riley said that his approach in Lawrence worked because he was able to keep the teachers union in check and preventing them from controlling the schools. “This is a group effort by the community,” he said at the time. “No one person or group should dominate the discussion about how we educate our kids. Unions have a function and running the schools isn’t one of them.”
Now, with the teachers union pushing Riley out it appears that they are going to take a much larger role in the curriculum and politicizing education in Lawrence once again. Something Riley had long said he wanted to avoid.