By: Tom Duggan – March 2006
While suburban cities and towns like North Andover are cutting their teaching staff and eliminating art and music programs due to lack of funding, Wilfredo Laboy and the Lawrence School Committee have chosen to use state education dollars for out of state travel conferences (to the tune of $4,000) and an inauguration party (to the tune of $2,000).
The inaugural party was attended to by more than 250 people and held at Sal’s Pizza after Lawrence Mayor Mike Sullivan (chairman of the School Committee) was sworn in at the South Lawrence East School for his second term. Members of the Lawrence City Council, School Committee and the Greater Lawrence Technical School Committee were also sworn in that evening, most of whom attended the festivities at Sal’s.
Initially, the inauguration party was “by invitation only,” whereby elected officials were given ten tickets each for friends and supporters to attend. But during the inauguration, the public was invited to attend the party, swelling attendance and resulting in a $4,000 food and beverage bill.
Lawrence Mayor Michael Sullivan said that it was Council President Patrick Blanchette who came up with the idea of having the Lawrence school department pay half of the tab ($2,000) with the city of Lawrence paying the other half out of local funds.
“I consulted with the city attorney, the city clerk and had numerous conversations with the Council president,” Sullivan said, “and it was determined that we could legally bill the city for the inauguration party last January. I think it’s an appropriate expense for the school department to pay half of this bill. The School Committee voted to pay it, I was one of those members, and I am very proud of my votes on this committee.
School Committeeman Amy McGovern was the only person on the seven-member board who voted against paying the bill, tussling with Sullivan during the meeting and saying she did not believe it was an appropriate educational expense.
“If this is a bill that can be paid for by the city, we haven’t gotten any documentation on that,” McGovern said.
“There was nothing that evening (at Sal’s Pizza) that had anything to do with education. There was nothing that evening that had anything to do with the mission of this school system. There was nothing that educationally enhanced our school system. Our school system struggles with educating our kids and making it so that they can be proficient and can succeed on their MCAS. So, if the city wants to pay for it, if the city clerk, city attorney and council president Blanchette say it is fine … it is their duty to come up with the funds to pay this $2,000 bill. I do not want to be stuck with their bill.”
Methuen Mayor Bill Manzi said that the Methuen inauguration festivities were paid for by private donations. “We received private donations for our inauguration party. I would never use public funds for a party for politicians. I don’t think the people of Methuen would stand for that,” Manzi said, before being told about Lawrence’s decision to use education dollars for an inauguration party.
Asked what he thought of the Lawrence situation Manzi added “Well, I am not going to comment on what Lawrence does, they have to make their own decisions and I am not going to criticize another community.” Manzi was quick to point out that this year’s Saint Patrick’s Day celebration (March 17, at the Gaythorn) in Methuen is being paid for by his own political campaign.
Lawrence City Council President Patrick Blanchette defended the expense saying that he doesn’t understand “what the big deal is,” given that the Council and School Committee have been splitting the bill for inaugural festivities “since 1990.”
“It’s unfortunate that people are making a huge deal over something very small,” Blanchette said. “I don’t remember any members of the School Committee complaining two years ago about their half of the bill. I assume that the school department has operational funds – other than ‘educational funds’ – to pay this bill. I believe it’s called foundation versus non-foundation. This is how I paid my half of the bill – from operational funds through the City Council.”
But Sandy Gleed, a parent volunteer at the Thomson School in North Andover, says she thinks it is a big deal.
“I find it very troubling that the city of Lawrence educates its children without paying a dime; the state pays 100% of their education costs.”
Gleed said cities like Lawrence have no incentive to spend money responsibly adding, “According to current state funding formulas, the town of North Andover is required to pay more than 88% of the total annual costs to educate its children, and we’re finding it exceedingly difficult to do so because of the burden of state transportation and special education mandates.”
“While our children are facing class sizes of 35 to 40 and stand to lose art, music and gym in the elementary level, foreign language and probably art and music at the middle school, and math and science teachers at the high school next year, putting our accreditation at severe risk, the Lawrence School Committee is dining and traveling on my tax dollars!
“I’d like to see our state elected representatives work aggressively to revise educational funding formulas to benefit communities who have a demonstrated need and an efficient plan to use state monies wisely.”