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Superintendent Lawrence to Leave BUSD

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday September 07, 2007

Michele Lawrence’s golf clubs ride along with her in the back of her silver 2004 Volkswagen station wagon wherever she goes.  

Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) first Latina superintendent has no time for golf, but it’s her favorite sport none the less. 

School board agendas, report cards and classified documents clutter the back seat of her car, spelling out more work, more commitments and more time away from home. 

But after January, Lawrence will have a chance to bid farewell to her 20-hour-weekdays and finally play that eighteen-hole-game she had set her heart on. 

“Even though I have a deep and abiding role for public education, my role as superintendent, with the long hours and time commitment, have afforded me little time for myself,” Lawrence told the community at Wednesday’s Board of Public Education meeting. 

“So, while I am still young and healthy enough, I want to explore other life interests.” 

It was with mixed emotions that Lawrence announced her retirement, which will take effect from Feb. 1. 

While the surprise announcement caused her critics to breathe easier, there were those who felt a sense of trepidation at her departure. 

“I am sorry to see her go,” school board president Joaquin Rivera said after her announcement. 

“But there’s never really a good time for people to leave. It’s good that she is leaving when she can enjoy her retirement. If she had waited for some more time, she might not have been able to do that.” 

There were also those who said they were happy to see her finally leave. 

“She has always been very unresponsive and elusive,” said Berkeley High parent Elizabeth Scherer. “There were no efforts to reach out to the community. I hope they find a good replacement who can come up with solutions. Lawrence would not even admit there were problems.” 

During her tenure, Lawrence battled her critics by appearing at school board meetings, PTA associations and school picnics and trying to prove them wrong time and again. 

“She is very strong, very determined and has very high standards,” Rivera told the Planet. “One of the tough decisions she had to make was how to balance a faltering budget when she first started, and she did a great job with that.” 

After taking over a troubled school district from former superintendent Jack McLaughlin in 2001, Lawrence spent four of her six years as district superintendent trying to balance the district’s staggering budget deficit. 

“It’s definitely one of the things I am most proud of,” Lawrence told the Planet Thursday. “But it was definitely a group effort. We realized we had to reduce expenditures. Our employees went without raises, programs were cut and sacrifices were made. But it brought credibility and accountability to our system and restored the community’s faith in our schools.” 

Alameda County superintendent Sheila Jordan also credited Lawrence with accomplishing a stable budget. 

“She came at a time when it was clear that the budget was in trouble,” she said.  

“We had given a negative certification to the district and it was well on its way to being taken over by the state. She recreated the foundation and was able to work with the community to pass various parcel taxes and bonds to improve the schools.” 

A graduate of CSU Fullerton, Lawrence has worked in the California public schools for more than 34 years. 

She leaves behind a legacy of stronger academic programs, increased test scores and an attempt to defend the BUSD student assignment and integration plan. 

Under her, the district emerged victorious in two successive lawsuits filed by the Pacific Legal Foundation which charged the district with violating California’s Proposition 209 by racially discriminating among students during placements at elementary schools and at programs at Berkeley High. 

Recently, Lawrence also spoke to the judges and attorneys of the Ninth Circuit Court during their annual conference on the topic of the aftermath of Brown vs. the Board of Education 

“She is the finest superintendent I know anywhere,” said Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp, who was hired by Lawrence to run the school four years ago. 

“People can connect to her leadership and her vision. She has changed the school district completely and really really really cares about her students.” 

The biggest challenge Lawrence faced at the high school was the lack of leadership on campus. The school, which saw eight principals in 10 years, changed dramatically after Slemp took over. 

Both Lawrence and Slemp were also pivotal in protecting students’ personal information from being used for military recruitment under the No Child Left Behind Act. 

Pressure from the federal government finally led to that policy being overturned, although both administrators promise to continue protecting their students’ rights. 

“She’s definitely leaving the district on a better footing,” acknowledged Barry Fike, former president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. 

“It’s taken longer than we expected, but she has focused on professional worker conditions and professional pay.” Teachers were left without a contract a couple of years ago, and all those walkouts and protests would have been unnecessary if the superintendent listened to us earlier. It was an unfortunate period but we did come out of it stronger. Hopefully the new superintendent will be able to focus on student achievement now.” 

Lawrence said her decision to retire in February had to do with budget decisions. 

“The new superintendent will have time to talk about new programs,” she said. “Otherwise, when you start in July everything is already decided and you have to wait another year.” 

Apart from playing golf, Lawrence said she is also looking forward to taking naps. 

“That and washing all the clothes that have piled up,” she said laughing. “I also want to pull some weeds and spend three solid months thinking of what I want to do next.” 


Contributed photo. BUSD Superintedent Michele Lawrence announces her retirement as school board member Joaquin Rivera looks on.