Scully talks of his departure from Lawrence in 1998,
the challenges Haverhill faces and the controversy on his salary
By: Tom Duggan – February, 2011
Former Lawrence School superintendent Jim Scully has been hired as the new superintendent in Haverhill.
Valley Patriot president Tom Duggan interviewed Scully on WHAV last week about his departure from Lawrence in 1998. Scully had been fired by the School Committee under former Mayor Mary Claire Kennedy for buying bagpipes for the school band, laptops (which saved the schools money on paper) and ice skates for “Latino” kids even though the School Committee had approved every one of those purchases.
Scully was asked if he felt vindicated now that he has been hired as the Haverhill Superintendent after a very public and humiliating firing in Lawrence [editor’s note: Scully sued for breach of contract and the City settled the case by paying out his contracts]
“First of all I worked in Haverhill as a principal [for the last five years] and I really love the Consentino School and the families and students there. It was a great five years, and doing that is when I felt vindicated.
Looking back at Lawrence it wasn’t just the pressure I received to hire two people who were politically connected [by Mayor Kennedy]. The fundamental issue was; Coopers and Lybrand, which is now Price Waterhouse, did a financial review of what the City was doing in the schools. And it was Coopers who found some irregularities. When I raised those issues with the Commissioner of Education Robert Antonucci, I asked him if he was going to side with the children of the City or the politicians. His response was the politicians. He wasn’t going to put his support behind [increasing] the finances that was due for the school system. So, at that point what they did was, [they] made issues in the Boston newspapers. And ultimately in the Eagle Tribune they made references to bagpipes and they never once mentioned things like the new marching band and how we brought back things that had died in Lawrence. So the rhetoric centered around the bagpipes not the band.”
Scully admitted that the public rhetoric surrounding why he needed to be fired in Lawrence back in 1998 turned racist when [then] Education Commissioner Antonucci objected to the purchase of bagpipes and ice skates for “Latino children” saying Scully had “misspent” the money and questioning why “Latinos’ should be playing bagpipes or ice skating.
“But he wasn’t the only one,” Scully revealed. “We had a State Senator [John O’Brien] making those comments too. But, that wasn’t the only issue it was the same thing with laptops. A full four years later [after he was fired] they were bestowing bouquets on Superintendents in the State that were buying laptops because [they] were putting laptops in the schools cheaper than PC’s.”
Scully said he loved being the Superintendent of Lawrence and had many great years in the City. “I really was happy there. I learned a lot there and many of the minority families were very supportive because it was the first opportunity their children had to participate in sports and hockey and things that Latino children weren’t accustomed to. I’m very proud of that.”
As the Superintendent in Lawrence, Scully built three schools: the South Lawrence East, The Frost and the Arlington despite political pressure not to do it, “those schools by the way, were built on-time and under-budget.’
Scully said that it was bad enough having politicians lying to the public about his management of the Lawrence Schools back then but that members of the press were adding fuel to the fire by publishing half truths and accusations from “unnamed sources”.
“The Globe writer [Kate Zernike] who happened to go on to the New York Times was admonished there for printing stories with unnamed sources, and all through my case it was always ‘unnamed sources’ that were making allegations, none of which stood up. And after extensive audits it was found that there was no money misspent [but the politicians and press] framed it in the context that money ‘could have been spent better on other things,’ but it wasn’t misspending. As the story goes on all those people who were in involved in my firing were replaced by the voters including the Mayor at the time [Mary Claire Kennedy].
With respect to being away [from education] for a while I worked at the Holy Family for a number of years before coming back the Consentino Middle School.”
The Consentino Middle School was plagued with violence, low test scores and low morale prior to Scully taking over the school. Asked how he turned it around in such a short time, Scully gave credit t the faculty and the families.
“It wasn’t just me it was a great group of teachers who really had deep concerns for the students. We all worked together, and the families pitched in. We were very definite with the students about their behavior. We were honest with them and we were firm and within about a month or so we brought the behavior incidents to a minimum and then we started working on the academic issues. I had wonderful people working with me. The whole group of teachers sincerely cared about the children and did a tremendous job I was just the fellow with the steering wheel but they were the ones who put their oars in the water and getting the ship in line.”
Scully said the key to running a successful school system is listening to the students.
“One group of people you can’t kid is the students. I just had a group of students here at Haverhill High School and if you sincerely listen to students you pick up a lot of things. They tell you the truth. They tell you what is going on. Nobody ever complained to me about the schools being dirty when I assumed the role last summer except for the students who said ‘Mr. Scully, can you get the schools clean?’
And by the way, that’s how we started the hockey program in Lawrence. Because I had my own two children skating in Haverhill and a young Spanish boy came to me and said ‘Mr. Scully, how come they can skate in Haverhill and we can’t skate in Lawrence?’ That’s why I started the skating program in Lawrence.”
Scully says the job of turning around a troubled school system in Haverhill will be challenging.
“Here in Haverhill there are a lot of good things going on. There are issues that need to be addressed as any school system, but we are addressing them. Most of the people are pitching in. We have come a long way in five months, we have a long way to go, but you have to set your expectations high and hold the rudder so you have a steady course and develop the right leaders. Those leaders who cannot climb on board… those leaders you have to cut loose.”
Asked about the media generated controversy about his salary as the new Haverhill Superintendent Scully said he thought it was a fair salary given what Superintendents are making across the State.
“When I first came here I didn’t know what the State requirements were. Given the short notice of Dr. Buchanan leaving as suddenly as he did, they had to get an interim Superintendent so the State had decided that a retired individual could keep a pension and draw a salary at the same time. My retirement was based on my Superintendent salary so I was making about $95K as a retired Superintendent. So, I received my salary on top of that. So, when the Mayor said the School Committee wanted me to stay on [permanently] what it meant was that I would have to give up my pension. I had to pay some money back to the State so I had to keep a balance so [that] I could keep about the same salary that I would have received last year absent a pension.
“So that’s why I asked my salary be raised from $150,000 to $185,000. The truth of the matter is that many of the Superintendent positions that are being advertised today are running around $190,000 with a $10-$20,000 annuity and $10,000 in benefits. So, agree or disagree, the going rate for a Superintendent is between $190,000-$200,000. I was just trying to be fair with my contract with the City. I though $185,000 was a fair figure.
“There are a lot of problems doing these searches for Superintendents and it costs about $150,000, plus the advertisements and related expenses. It’s very expensive. So, I think the money I sought from the School Committee was fair and reasonable and certainly less than they would be paying someone else to come in here. And I know the community I know the people and I have a grasp for the issues.”
Scully said he is not looking to be the Superintendent of any other community and will serve the rest of his days as an educator in Haverhill. He also said that his philosophy of reforming a school system from the lower grades up is one he is going to implement in Haverhill as he did in Lawrence.
“People may remember just a few months ago the State Department of Education came out with review of the school system. And what they found was something School Committeeman Bevilacqua has been saying and that’s that Haverhill is not one school system. It’s a system of school systems. There’s not a lot of continuity across grades from K to 12 with the academic programs and the State has made suggestions that we move some positions around and people and programs to try to wind things up. Just this past few weeks we have taken the curriculum people who were responsible for half the curriculum development and make them responsible for the English language instruction, for example; for the K-12 program. That is the exact way I approached this in the past and how I am approaching it now.
“You have a single strand for each subject area that runs with the students from k-12. The complication here in Haverhill is that there are a lot of little kingdoms that we have to somehow penetrate to get everybody on the same page and as I said most of the people have been terrific.
“One of the other things is we have to raise expectations. I think teachers need to set a higher standard. I have met with parent groups and even the students say we have to raise expectations and when we do that I believe you will have a better school system.
“Parents really want to know what the schools are offering their children. What academic menu are they serving? Are they challenging their children? Is their homework just to keep them busy or is it meaningful homework? I even think high school students are expecting more than they have from their teachers than they use to. I think if you say what’s different between now and ten years ago? They [parents] are better shoppers and are more critical and more aware and more demanding. They are more involved in their children’s education than in the past. After meeting with 300-400 parents, the same message keeps coming through over and over again. How are our kids being challenged and what are the expectations?”
Asked what his biggest challenge would be in Haverhill as he moves forward, Scully said; “Answering that specific cry from people as to what are the expectations? There are always financial issues there are always going to be the building issues, but we need to make sure we are hiring the best possible teachers we can hire. We have to assure parents that the people we are hiring are the best people available to put in front of their children. We have to make sure that all of us from the Superintendent down to the custodian are doing the right thing by children so that whatever dream those kids may be harboring inside, the school can find a way to help them find that dream or achieve that goal.”
Asked about how he planned on making up the number of snow days this year, Scully said that he had two things under consideration. “There are two things in the early stages of discussion. We are not going to affect the February vacation. It’s a couple of weeks away. There seems to be a feeling that if we put in a few Saturdays it makes more sense than chopping off a whole vacation. In April we have another vacation and during that week there’s a religious holiday so there’s only four days we can grab there.”
Scully dismissed the idea of tacking an hour onto each school day to preserve vacations because of the number of athletic events and after school programs it would affect. “There’s directive from the Commissioner that we have to make up every single hour of school that has been missed. We need to see how this discussion matures and then we will have a direction to go in.”