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Official Who Suspended Teachers Failed Test 3 Times

August 06, 2003|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

LAWRENCE, Mass. — When two dozen teachers here failed a required English fluency examination, the superintendent of this state's most troubled school system placed them on unpaid administrative leave.

Now it turns out that Supt. Wilfredo Laboy three times flunked a mandatory Massachusetts teacher certification test.

Laboy did not return calls Tuesday, but the disclosure has sparked outrage among many state educators. The governor and commissioner of education, however, have rallied to support Laboy.

"I'm not sure the superintendent of schools is in the same level of importance to me in terms of English skills as are the teachers in the classroom teaching our kids," Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, said at his Monday news conference.

Romney strongly backed a state ballot question last fall calling for English-immersion programs in schools. The measure passed, and the English fluency test for teachers was introduced as a result.

But Steve Crawford, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers, on Tuesday fired back, saying: "It is the height of arrogance for Gov. Romney to suggest that school department leaders may meet a lesser standard than the teachers and students they are expected to lead."

All teachers and public school administrators in Massachusetts have been required since 1998 to pass a test that measures communications skills and literacy.

The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune newspaper revealed Sunday that Laboy has taken and failed the exam three times in three years.

Laboy, who has refused to comment on the controversy since the article was published, earlier told the newspaper that he was handicapped in taking the test because English is his second language.

"It bothers me because I'm trying to understand the congruence of what I do here every day and this stupid test," the newspaper quoted Laboy as saying.

"I didn't meet the bar," the superintendent -- a native of Puerto Rico -- said in the article. "But I think honestly and truly that it has no relevancy to what I do every day. The fruits of my labor speak greater than not passing a test."

Laboy, 52, has headed the 13,800-student Lawrence school system for three years. He came to the struggling industrial city north of Boston from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he was assistant school superintendent.

Laboy last week received a 3% pay increase. His $156,560 annual salary makes him the highest-paid public employee in Lawrence.

"Honestly, this is why I'm glad I didn't go to high school here," said Clara Morel, 22, a Lawrence native who attended private school on scholarship. Morel said her younger sister consulted her high school guidance counselor in Lawrence when she was having problems not long ago and was told she should just drop out.

Lawrence schools for years have been plagued by financial woes and low achievement. The state Board of Education has discussed placing the Lawrence system under state administration.

The exam the 24 Lawrence teachers failed was introduced in the spring as a measure of English proficiency for bilingual instructors. The exam is administered orally.

The teachers have passed the written certification test that Laboy failed, according to Crawford.

"These are teachers with 18, 20 years of service, some of them, to kids in the most troubled school system in Massachusetts," he said.

"Fair is fair," Crawford went on. "The teachers who have been suspended should be given the same number of opportunities to pass a new test that the superintendent has been given to pass a test that has been on the books for the last five years."

Massachusetts Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll stressed Tuesday that Laboy passed "all but the writing portion" of the Massachusetts Test for Educator Licensure.

"This test is not easy, particularly for someone whose first language is not English," the commissioner said.

Laboy will have two more opportunities to take the exam before the end of the year, said Department of Education spokeswoman Kimberly Beck.

Shawn Feddeman, press secretary to Romney, said Tuesday that the governor "thinks very highly" of Laboy.

But, said Feddeman, "he certainly expects the superintendent to pass the test."

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