Board chooses Cynthia Paris as Lawrence school superintendent
Eagle-Tribune - 5/22/2018
May 22--LAWRENCE -- A Latina mother of two who regularly moved between public schools in New York and Puerto Rico while growing up, and who was motivated to pursue a career as a teacher and school administrator by her experiences with her autistic sister, was chosen Monday as the city's next school superintendent by the board running the schools for the state.
The receivership board voted 5-2 to hire Cynthia Paris, 47, now assistant superintendent of schools in Newton, Massachusetts, citing her Latin heritage and her fluency in Spanish, her commitment to special education and English language learners, and the work she did reversing the decline of two Boston elementary schools.
The board chose Paris over Verna Ruffin, 65, an African-American who has worked as an educator in four southern states and now serves as chief academic officer for turnaround schools in receivership in Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee. About 40 people in all applied for the job, including another Latina woman who was one of three finalists but withdrew her name and has not been identified.
Paris' nomination now goes to state Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, who served as receiver and superintendent in Lawrence schools for six years until leaving this spring, and subsequently was named commissioner. Riley did not respond to a text message seeking comment on Paris' selection, but on Friday said both Paris and Ruffin are qualified. He has veto power over the board's choice because Lawrence schools remain in receivership and under state control.
"I feel like I learned throughout this process -- meeting with families, teachers, students, administrators, the (receivership) board, the School Committee and elected officials -- about the passion and commitment Lawrence has to its students," Paris said when reached at her home in Roslindale after the vote. "So, I'm very excited to be part of that work."
Paris worked in Boston public schools as a speech pathologist and principal for 17 years, including two years as turnaround principal at William Blackstone Elementary School and two years as principal at the underachieving Curtis Guild elementary school, before she was hired as assistant superintendent in Newton in 2014.
But the five members of the receivership board who voted for Paris at the North Common Education Center on Monday, including Mayor Daniel Rivera, said they were won over as much by her life experience as her professional experience.
"Paris is what Lawrence parents look like," Rivera said before voting for her, noting she is a single mother, has a background in special education, moved often between the United States and the Caribbean while growing up, and is fluent in Spanish. "We have an opportunity to hire a superintendent that's a reflection of that demographic. She looks like many of the heads of households in our district. She's a champion for English language learners and for special education. She's lived the life of our students and families and she'll lead from that place."
"Miss Paris is the right person because she's walked in the shoes of so many Lawrence students and families," said John Connolly, the former Boston city councilor and mayoral candidate who chairs the receivership board. "She knows those shoes so well."
Paris takes over what remains one of the state's most trouble districts, where MCAS scores remain comparatively low and the drop-out rate remains comparatively high, even after six years of progress under Riley. She said during a two-day tour of the schools last week that her first task will be winning the confidence of the city. Among her top, long-range tasks will be leading Lawrence schools out of receivership and returning them to local control, a few members of the receivership board that she'll report to said Monday.
The state took control of the schools and handed them to Riley in January 2012, after decades of decline and after the School Committee fired three superintendents in a row. Most recent among them was Wilfredo Laboy, who was fired in 2010 after he was indicted on charges of fraud and embezzlement, including having school employees chauffeur his adult son when he lost his driver's license and directing school employees to perform electrical work and pick up the garbage at his Howe Street home in Methuen.
The search for a new superintendent appeared headed for troubles of its own last week, when state Sen. Barbara L'Italien, D-Andover, and state Reps. Frank Moran and Juana Matias, both Lawrence Democrats, said the process was inadequate, in part because it they claimed it sought insufficient input from parents, teachers, School Committee members and community leaders, and ended with the selection of just two finalists. L'Italien and Moran called on Commissioner Riley to block the receivership board from voting Monday.
Riley rejected the suggestion and the protest fizzled. Just one person -- Tom Meyers, former head of the teachers union in Andover -- spoke at a public hearing before Monday's vote. He said the selection process was undemocratic and inadvertently called Connolly "Mr. Walsh," an apparent reference to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who defeated Connolly for mayor five years ago.
All seven members of the receivership board defended the selection process before voting Monday.
Connors noted that the board was aggressive in seeking input of parents, students and the community, by holding focus groups and posting a survey on-line that drew 300 responses. He acknowledged making mistakes -- including insufficiently "getting the word out" about the search -- but chalked them up to the fact that the state appointed the receivership board in February, when the search for superintendents in other communities was well underway.
"I know I'm the guy from Boston and that invites all kinds of criticism, as well it should," he said about the fact that an out-of-towner chairs the receivership board and led it through the selection of a superintendent. He also noted that five of the board's seven members live in Lawrence.
In the end, all seven board members expressed confidence in Paris, although a few also expressed concerns. Among them, Julia Silverio, a former city councilor who owns insurance and travel agencies, noted that Paris said she will not move to Lawrence because she fears moving would add to the disruption her children suffered when she and their father divorced. Her children attend Brookline public schools.
"The job here is very demanding," Silverio said before voting. "Should we hire her, are we going to have a candidate who will be here for the long term?"
The receivership board's next task is to negotiate a contract with Paris. She is expected to start in Lawrence at about the time the new school year starts July 1, and will earn a salary of up to $225,000.
"I want to end well," Paris said after Monday's vote, referring to her four years as assistant superintendent in Newton, where 12,000 students -- about 1,000 few than Lawrence -- attend public schools. "I want to transition in a way that (works) for both communities."
The 5-2 vote for Paris was both lopsided and narrow because a majority plus one of the seven-member board -- five votes -- was needed to choose a superintendent.
Besides Rivera and Connolly, Paris had the support of Patricia Mariano, a former city teacher and former principal of the Francis Leahy School; Noemi Custodia-Lora, a vice president of Northern Essex Community College in charge of the college's Lawrence campus; and Ventura Rodriguez, associate commissioner at the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which Riley heads.
Silverio and Jessica Andors, executive director of Lawrence Community Works, voted for Ruffin.
Several of Lawrence's political and education leaders attended the vote, including Frank McLaughlin, president of the Lawrence Teachers Union.
Mclaughlin did not publicly support either Ruffin or Paris, but has protested that his union was not represented on the partnership board. Asked to comment on Paris' selection Monday, McLaughlin said only that he looks forward to working with her.
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