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The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education

Statement by Commissioner of Education Robert V. Antonucci on the Lawrence Public Schools

Delivered at the Board of Education meeting June 16, 1997

The Board of Education has on its agenda for this meeting an update on the situation in the Lawrence Public Schools, which the Board last discussed at our February 1997 meeting. The item was placed on today's agenda in anticipation of the release of the State Auditor's report on certain activities of the Lawrence Public School system from July 1993 through March 1997. The State Auditor's report was released on Thursday, June 12. The information we now have from multiple sources indicates that the Lawrence School District has consistently failed to take appropriate action and properly use available resources to improve the performance of students attending schools in the district. Therefore, I am recommending that the Board today take the first step in the process to declare the Lawrence School District chronically under-performing.

The sources of information on which I base this statement include thefollowing:

  1. the State Auditor's report of June 12;
  2. the coordinated program review conducted by Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff in Lawrence the week of April 7, 1997;
  3. all of the other information and data provided by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC) accreditation report on Lawrence High School; and
  4. other information and data concerning Lawrence, including student test scores, participation in the state tests, student attendance and dropout rates, and the letters we have received from concerned citizens of Lawrence, meetings I have held with school officials, and personal visits to the Lawrence schools.

1. The State Auditor's Report

The Auditor's report describes "questionable administrative decisions relative to hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenditures," "excessive administrative costs," "noncompliance with state laws relative to purchased goods and services," "inadequate administrative controls over consultant contracts," and "questionable and unreported fringe benefits to certain staff members." The report includes allegations that certain laws were violated, and one of the steps I will be recommending is the immediate referral of this report to the Attorney General for appropriate investigation and enforcement action if necessary.

The issue for the Board of Education to consider is educational leadership in the school district. The leadership of the school district and the city should be focusing all of the available resources on vigorous educational improvement, to strengthen teaching and learning and expand educational opportunities for the students. This is especially true given the demographics in Lawrence, including high concentrations of poverty and substantial numbers of students whose first language is not English. In this context, the Auditor's findings of excessive administrative costs, inadequate administrative controls, substantial spending on non-instructional items and questionable and unreported staff fringe benefits are deeply troubling. They indicate a failure of local educational leadership, for which the students of Lawrence and the taxpayers of the Commonwealth are paying the price.

2. The coordinated program review by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education conducted a coordinated review of programs in Lawrence in April. As a matter of course during every school year, the Department visits approximately 50 school districts to review programs supported by federal and state resources. These include special education, Title I, transitional bilingual education, and vocational-technical programs. I informed the Superintendent of the upcoming visit 10 months ahead of time, in June 1996. As is our usual procedure, we submitted a draft report to the Superintendent, and he has provided his views on the report's factual accuracy.

Based on a preliminary review of this material, it is apparent that there is a lack of administrative oversight to implement policies and procedures related to timely placement of students in appropriate special education and transitional bilingual education programs. A particularly troubling finding is that academic instruction in the transitional bilingual education programs is primarily in Spanish, which means most students do not develop adequate English skills and often fail in mainstream monolingual English classes. In addition, support services for these students are inadequate, and most students in the transitional bilingual education programs do not participate consistently in art, music and physical education classes with their English-speaking peers, which further diminishes their opportunity to develop English-language skills.

3. The NEASC accreditation report

The NEASC accreditation report shows clearly that for a decade, serious problems at the Lawrence High School were not corrected. Lawrence High School was placed on warning of losing its accreditation in June of 1990, placed on probation in March of 1992, and lost its accreditation this spring. The loss of its accreditation was based on significant concerns including the persistent lack of a focus and vision for the school, a lack of high expectations for all students, the continued failure of the school to provide clear curriculum and instruction, the continuing high dropout rate, and the lack of an effective administrative organization.

4. Other information and data accumulated to date

Beyond the NEASC report, my visits with Lawrence school administrators as well as teachers, my observation of the meetings of the Lawrence School Committee, a review of published and non-published articles and letters, and testing, attendance and dropout data show that the evidence is substantial as to the lack of serious action to improve the education and achievement of Lawrence students. Of particular concern, Lawrence student scores on the MEAP particularly at the high school level have been stagnant from 1988 to 1996 in every subject tested including reading, mathematics, science and social studies. Also, only 49% of Lawrence tenth graders participated in the 1996 test, the lowest percentage in the state. The district's attendance rate has consistently been three to four points below the state average, with the high school attendance rate consistently eight to nine points behind the state average for high schools. And while the Lawrence high school drop-out rate has improved from 13.8% in 1994 to 6.4% in 1996, it is still nearly double the state average of 3.4%. Especially when viewed together with the other information we now have, these test scores, attendance rates, and drop-out rates are indicators of a school system that is failing to meet the needs of the students it serves.

5. Action Steps

For these reasons, I am recommending that the Board today determine that the Lawrence Public Schools have consistently failed to take appropriate action and properly use available resources to improve the performance of students attending schools in the district, and this failure is evidence of chronic under-performance by the school district. This will constitute the first step under Massachusetts law to formally declare the Lawrence School District chronically under-performing.

If the Board so votes, I intend to:

  • appoint a fact-finding team to assess and report on the reasons for the under-performance in Lawrence and the prospects for improvement. I expect to receive a report from the team within 30 days of their appointment.
  • refer to the Attorney General, for appropriate investigation and enforcement action in accordance with G.L. c. 69, § 1B, any findings in the State Auditor's report on Lawrence that indicate possible violations of law.
  • report to the Board, no later than the August 15, 1997 meeting of the Board of Education, as to whether I recommend that the Board declare the Lawrence Public Schools chronically under-performing and intervene pursuant to the Board's authority under G.L. c. 69, § 1K. Starting today, the Board and I will be soliciting recommendations for the name of a receiver, pending a possible decision by the Board of Education authorizing this step.
  • assign a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education staff member to the Lawrence schools to monitor the operations of the school department, including reviewing the expenditures contained in the weekly warrants. The Department will closely review any application for state or federal funds made by the Lawrence Public Schools. The Department will request the Lawrence School Committee not to enter into contracts for the next school year without prior review by the Department.

Last Updated: June 16, 1997
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