fb-pixelAfter 10 years, Lawrence wants to take back control of its schools. But Commissioner Riley is showing no signs of letting go of state receivership - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

After 10 years, Lawrence wants to take back control of its schools. But Commissioner Riley is showing no signs of letting go of state receivership

The school committee’s receivership vote comes amid a recent spate of violence at Lawrence High

Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

State Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley on Tuesday gave no indication that he would give up control of the Lawrence school district, one day after the School Committee voted to ask him to end the state’s 10-year receivership of the struggling school system.

Riley vaguely addressed “the situation in Lawrence” during Tuesday’s meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education but made no mention of the School Committee’s vote to petition the state to end the receivership.

“We’re going to continue to support the administration as they enact a plan to strengthen the school and make sure that our kids get what they need,” said Riley, who served as the state-appointed receiver running Lawrence schools for several years before becoming state education commissioner.

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Violence has erupted at the city’s high school in recent days, with a series of campus-based fights and arrests, prompting elected leaders, the teachers union, and others to question the success of the receivership and call for its end. The district was placed in receivership, or under state oversight, in 2011 after chronic poor student performance. The district now is overseen by the nonprofit Lawrence Alliance for Education, though Lawrence school leaders handle the day-to-day decisions in the district under the guidance of the receivership board, according to the state.

Though some in Lawrence have long lamented the state takeover, the issue came to a head Monday. More than 100 teachers, parents, and elected officials rallied outside the school early in the day, calling on district leaders to address staffing shortages and criticizing the leadership of Superintendent Cynthia Paris, who was hired by the Lawrence Alliance for Education in 2018. Kim Barry, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union, said during the rally that the “crisis” at Lawrence High School “didn’t happen overnight,” blaming the “mismanagement in a top-down state receivership” for ignoring students, disrespecting educators, and failing to provide needed resources.

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Then late Monday night, after a series of public comments calling for the return of local control and a greater voice among parents and community members, during the joint emergency session of the Lawrence City Council and School Committee, committee members passed a motion to petition the commissioner to end the receivership.

The altercations at Lawrence High School have highlighted the need for additional resources and the effect of the receivership on the district, Mayor Kendrys Vasquez said during the meeting. He hopes the end of the receivership will “return that voice to our residents.”

On Tuesday, Riley said he had visited Lawrence twice within the past week to meet with school leaders, students, and staff members. Riley also was invited to attend Monday night’s meeting but sent someone from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in his place, according to state education spokeswoman Colleen Quinn.

Asked after the meeting how the commissioner feels about the Lawrence School Committee’s vote, Quinn declined to comment further.

“Student safety and support are paramount for both the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and Lawrence Public Schools leadership,” Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state K-12 education agency, said in a statement. “The Department will continue to support Lawrence school officials to ensure students have what they need to be successful this year.”

Though Lawrence was only briefly addressed Tuesday, the issue of receiverships came up multiple times throughout the state meeting.

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Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, told the board during the public comment period that she wanted to address the “bullying” of Boston Public Schools with threats of putting the district into a receivership. Riley told the Globe in a recent interview that “we are certainly not immune or afraid to look for receivership,” but for now, the state is trying to extend technical support and other efforts to improve the district.

Reyes pointed to other districts where the state has seized control, including Lawrence, and said the receiverships have only “created systemic disarray.”

“In Lawrence, a series of school fights have erupted, in part due to the lack of social-emotional supports for students and families in the wake of returning to schools post-pandemic,” Reyes said. “This is the state’s record of receivership, and it is chronically under-performing.”