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Troubled Lawrence schools chief faces new problems

Russell Contreras

In his nine years as Lawrence’s school superintendent, Wilfredo Laboy has been a lightning rod for criticism in the poor, heavily Latino city.

The 58-year-old educator failed a state literacy test three times, got into a physical altercation with a former school committee member and billed the city for running boards on a city-leased SUV so his wife could get in and out easier when wearing high heels.

At the same time, during Laboy’s tenure, the school district has seen students’ test scores rise and a new state-of-the-art high school erected, and some stability has come to a long-troubled system. As one of the state’s few minority superintendents, he’s also sought out nationally to speak on minority educational issues.

But now another string of controversies, including one involving an aide who used school computers to conduct unauthorized background checks, has forced Laboy to the sidelines, at least temporarily.

Laboy announced last week he was taking a six- to eight-week medical leave to battle a stress-related illness that he says nearly caused a heart attack.

“The doctor told me, ‘You have to concentrate on restoring your health,’” Laboy told The Associated Press. “That’s what I’m doing now.”

The recent school troubles began in February when substitute teacher Ileana Bordonaro said she was escorted by security from the city’s International High School for allowing students in her Italian class to bring in home-cooked spaghetti and lasagna — a violation of school policy.

Then, the Lawrence Teachers Union gave a vote of “no confidence” to International High School Principal Terika Smith after she failed to properly report to police two underage drinking cases at the school.

But the pressure intensified on Laboy last month when his special assistant, Mark Rivera, was forced to resign after he used school computers to run background checks on political candidates, police officers, news reporters and others. Rivera, 32, had been the superintendent’s closest ally and confidant.

Lawrence Police Chief John Romero said investigators have decided not to file any criminal charges against Rivera.

Still, the background checks sparked outrage among various political leaders, including some school committee members who demanded that Laboy be suspended or fired.

“Things are starting to fall apart,” said school committee member and regular Laboy critic James Vittorioso. “A lot of people are angry at [Laboy].”

And there may be more coming. Romero confirmed state investigators are looking into claims that the district’s media center printed materials for political candidates and local nonprofits.

Laboy declined to comment on any of the controversies.

Mayor Michael J. Sullivan, who is also chairman of the school committee, said Laboy is unfairly taking heat for the recent flaps.

“He has eight layers of people under him who are supposed to fix things,” Sullivan said. “And everyone is blaming him as if he was personally involved.”

Born in Puerto Rico, Laboy came up through New York’s public schools as a student and later educator before getting tapped as Lawrence’s education chief. He was the first Latino superintendent in a school district where nearly 90 percent of its students are Latino.

When he arrived, Lawrence students’ test scores ranked near the bottom in the state and the district had a dropout rate that was five times the state average.

In addition, two of his predecessors were fired after hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on questionable expenditures, including expensive dinners and bagpipes.

As superintendent, Laboy immediately drew attention when he fired two dozen bilingual teachers for not passing an oral English examination, but then failed a similar test three times himself.

In 2005, former school committee member Amy McGovern and Laboy filed assault charges against each other following a dispute in Laboy’s office. The pair later reached an agreement and the cases were dismissed.

But Laboy’s combative personality is what has given “a band of haters” an excuse to challenge him over such matters as policy and hiring decisions, said Tom Duggan, publisher of The Valley Patriot, a Merrimack Valley monthly newspaper.

Laboy was also targeted by various talk radio hosts who, at times, even made fun of his accent.

“If you go on personality alone, then he gets low marks,” Duggan said. “But if you look at his performance as an educator and the district’s statistics, then he gets high marks. Just look at the test scores.”

According to district numbers, when Laboy took over, Lawrence 10th graders had a 24 percent passing rate on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System math test. Last year, the passing rate for 10th graders was 61 percent, district numbers show.

He has said he plans to retire in 2010.

“I’m absolutely proud of my record as superintendent,” Laboy said. “I’d like to think that my nine years [have] prepared this district for a long legacy of learning. But right now, I’m just physically worn down.”

(Associated Press)