Lawrence mayor seeks resignation of state education official after ‘offensive’ remarks

Apr. 25—LAWRENCE — Mayor Kendrys Vasquez is calling on Commissioner of Education Jeffrey Riley to permanently remove a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education board member for what the city leader says are inflammatory comments insinuating underperforming school districts refuse to take action to improve.

Vasquez said he will not accept Michael Moriarty’s personal apology for the comments and that if he does not resign from the DESE board he wants Riley — Lawrence’s former state-appointed superintendent — to remove him. Should that not happen, the mayor plans to petition Gov. Charlie Baker to do so.

At Tuesday’s DESE meeting, Moriarty, of Holyoke, and other colleagues were discussing the value of the MCAS test and the school accountability system. Board members voted not to change districts’ accountability statuses this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawrence’s district status is considered “needs assistance,” according to the mayor’s office. If districts continually underperform, they face receivership, as is the current case with Lawrence.

During the discussion, Moriarty brought up his Holyoke hometown as well as Lawrence, when referring to communities with Level 5 classification — schools considered to be underperforming by DESE. Moriarty said that there is “no getting away” from the freezing the designations and called them critical in districts that have been designated as chronically underperforming.

“(There’s) a period of time now that we’ve been unable to take the kinds of actions that are necessary because of the deep inequities that exist from one district to (the) next, and we know they can’t change themselves, ’cause they never do,” said Moriarty, who was appointed by the governor to the board in 2015.

“So if there’s any place where there needs to be a very serious conversation and a very serious intentionality about moving forward, it’s going to be in a revived accountability system that follows the end of this pandemic,” Moriarty continued.

Through a Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokesperson, Moriarty apologized for giving what he called a wrong impression.

“I made a comment …which I regret was insulting, and for that I sincerely apologize,” Moriarty said. “I was referring to school districts, not people in those communities. I never meant to disparage people who live in Holyoke and Lawrence. I apologize for giving that impression. I will strive to communicate much better going forward.”

Vasquez told The Eagle-Tribune that Moriarty’s statements were both a “dog whistle” and a “subliminal coded message.”

“Mr. Moriarty, I’m here to prove you wrong: On the same night that you gave those remarks, the City Council voted to approve the borrowing of $132.3 million to rebuild the new Oliver Partnership School, which clearly shows you that we are changing ourselves, because that’s what we do,” Vasquez said. “His words are essentially coded and we know what he means.

“What I think he really wants to say is that ‘immigrants are lazy people who do not care about education.’ To insinuate that Lawrence Public Schools cannot change because of our past or our current status is offensive. Your words and lack of action to improve the schools have shown me that you do not care about communities like Lawrence and to speak so poorly of your own community lets me know the type of person that you are.”

In an email to Riley, Vasquez copied other members of the DESE board, calling them out for not standing up for communities of color. Members of the Lawrence state and local delegation were also included on that email, with the promise that a similar note would be sent to the governor.

According to the mayor, Moriarty called him Thursday to personally apologize. Vasquez, however, was not swayed by the gesture.

“Mr. Moriarty did call me to apologize for his comments and I was firm in my position not to accept his apology,” Vasquez said, “because doing so would be a disservice to the community I’m representing. It didn’t sound genuine. The only thing I can accept is a resignation or removal to amend the error that was made.”

Late Friday afternoon, state Rep. Frank Moran emailed a similar note to both Baker and Riley on behalf of Lawrence’s state and local delegation. The letter was co-signed by state Sen. Barry Finegold, state Rep. Marcos Devers, U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan, School Committee member Joshua Alba and City Council members Jeovanny Rodriguez, Celina Reyes, Jorge Gonzalez, Estella Reyes, Maria De La Cruz, Pavel Payano and Ana Levy.

“Simply put, Mr. Moriarty’s conduct is unacceptable and indicates that his priorities as a board member of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education do not reflect the urgent needs of the City of Lawrence and similar minority communities,” the letter read in part, calling for Moriarty’s immediate and permanent dismissal.

A lifelong Holyoke resident, Moriarty served 13 years on the Holyoke School Committee, according to the DESE website. He was instrumental in forming that city’s Early Literacy Initiative, which focuses on helping children read by the end of third grade, and is a vocal supporter of arts education. He is an attorney who also serves as the executive director of the OneHolyoke Community Development Corporation, a non-profit aimed at creating more attractive housing options for residents of his hometown.

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