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Lawrence schools taken over by state

Receiver or group will operate ailing system

Lawrence schools have suffered chronically low standardized test scores and the worst graduation rates in the state.Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

MALDEN - The state’s education board approved a takeover of the troubled Lawrence public schools yesterday, addressing years of academic failure in the district and marking the first time the state has fully seized the reins of a local school system.

By a 10-to-1 vote, the board gave Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester the authority to appoint a receiver with sweeping powers, a radical move that paves the way

for a wholesale overhaul of schools, which have had chronically low standardized test scores and the worst graduation rate in the state.

“This is a district where a strong education is the exception, not the rule,’’ Chester said after the vote. “It’s no longer business as usual. We need to turn things around for the children of Lawrence.’’

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Within two weeks, Chester expects to appoint either an individual or a nonprofit group with experience improving city schools, to run the system. The overseer, who will report directly to Chester, will assume control of the 13,000-student district in January and probably remain in charge for at least several years.

The receiver will have full say over the school budget, which includes $5 million in unspent federal funds, and broad latitude to shake up staff. The position carries the powers of the superintendent and the School Committee, which will be relegated to an advisory role.

That loss of control, while widely expected, drew a bittersweet mix of frustration and relief in Lawrence yesterday.

“It’s unfortunate this is happening,’’ said Pavel M. Payano, a Lawrence school board member. “But it’s probably for the best.’’

Lawrence’s public schools have languished for years, plagued by erratic leadership and low parental involvement. Some 90 percent of students are Hispanic, and many come from low-income, immigrant families who speak English as a second language. The district’s English and math scores rank in the bottom 1 percent of the state and have shown little sign of improvement.

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The district has been without a permanent superintendent for well over two years, since its previous leader left amid a criminal investigation.

The magnitude of the problems presents a stern challenge to the state’s campaign to turn around long-struggling urban schools. Education officials said they did not take the takeover lightly, but that the schools’ woes had reached a critical point.

“It’s a momentous action, both for the board and the community,’’ said Paul Reville, the state’s education secretary. “But I think it’s the right thing to do.’’

Reville said the takeover will bring academic expertise and some financial assistance to the district. “It’s a moment of opportunity,’’ he said.

At yesterday morning’s meeting of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in Malden, board member Vanessa Calderón-Rosado spoke in favor of a takeover, saying the schools were failing minority children in desperate need of a good education.

“The way the district is hurting the children of Lawrence is unacceptable,’’ she said.

But critics said the step was hasty and excessive. Ruth Kaplan, the lone opponent on the board, said the situation in Lawrence did not warrant such an aggressive move.

State Representative David Torrisi, whose district includes part of Lawrence, said many of the city’s schools are performing solidly and criticized the School Committee for failing to hire a new superintendent.

A newly elected school board, he said, could make the necessary changes on its own.

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“Don’t these folks and the teachers and the staff deserve a chance to turn it around?’’ he asked.

Earlier this month, state education officials tagged three more city schools for restructuring. That prompted Mayor William Lantigua to make a public appeal for state intervention.

Yesterday, Lantigua reiterated his belief that receivership was the only way to turn the schools around. “There will be more resources, more innovations, and I am certain that there will be more evaluations,’’ he said in an interview, conducted in Spanish, “For those who are not doing a good job, they’ll be shown the door.’’

Lantigua, a polarizing figure since taking office nearly two years ago, has been the target of a federal corruption probe.

He said the takeover may further hurt the city’s tattered reputation, but that the city would benefit in the long run.

“A worse black eye would be continuing with a mediocre education that prevents our children from being ready,’’ he said. “There are those who come to our city simply to fatten up their retirements, not to dedicate the proper time that’s necessary for our kids.’’

Frank McLaughlin, president of the teachers union and an outspoken Lantigua critic, said the takeover was a clear indictment of Lantigua’s failings.

“It really puts the government of the city of Lawrence in its place,’’ he said. Teachers, he said, would work with state officials to carry out reform.

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In the late 1980s, Chelsea officials handed authority over to Boston University, allowing the university to determine their school system’s budget and assemble staff, but the state was not in direct control of schools, as it will now be in Lawrence.

Many parents voiced support for the takeover and frustration that it was necessary.

“The educational policies offered by Lawrence are not very good,’’ said Dieudonne Milambo, who moved here from the Democratic Republic of Congo a year ago and has two children in the schools. “The level of education can be better.’’

Alexander Hiraldo, a senior at a Lawrence high school, said he thought that his teachers are excellent and that motivated students could do well.

Still, state intervention is “for the better,’’ he said. “Maybe the state can come in and tighten up the loose bolts and fix them.’’


Katheleen Conti of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Peter Schworm can be reached at pschworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobePete. John Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Globe_Guilfoil.