On a job search engine, Camila Sánchez-Longo and Ivelisse Méndez applied for a job at the Escuela Pública Alianza para las Culturas Internacionales y las Artes   en un Programa Dual (EPACIAD) that offered an annual salary of $40,000. A public school teacher in Puerto Rico makes about $33,000 a year, so the attractive offer prompted these educators to quit their jobs without suspecting that two months later they would be unemployed after the Department of Education (DE) canceled the school’s contract.

On October 6, 2022, Education canceled the contract or constitutive letter of what would be the branch of the South Bronx Charter School for International Cultures & the Arts (SBCSICA) in Puerto Rico. The termination of the agreement came after the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) ordered the agency “to show cause regarding the awarding of the contract,” 20 days after the CPI revealed that this charter had accusations from the Office of the Comptroller of New York and that an incorporator of the Neighborhood Association For Inter-Cultural Affairs–Puerto Rico (NAICA-PR), Richard Izquierdo Arroyo, pleaded guilty to embezzling funds from another nonprofit organization he chaired in New York. NAICA-PR would be the nonprofit organization that would administer the EPACIAD.

The OIG asked Education to explain why it formalized an agreement with this nonprofit corporation that, according to the government of Puerto Rico’s statutes, had “the impediment or permanent inability” to get government contracts for having an ex-con founding partner. In addition, the OIG asked the DE to demonstrate the reasons why it should not “proceed with issuing a resolution and order declaring the nullity of the contract.”

Richard Izquierdo Arroyo is one of the founders of the Neighborhood Association for Inter-Cultural Affairs–Puerto Rico Inc.
Official photo from the NAICA-NY page

The Committee for the Evaluation and Disposition of Real Estate (CEBDI, in Spanish), which is under the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF, in Spanish) had already leased to NAICA-PR the Jesús María Quiñones School in Santurce, a San Juan neighborhood, which was closed in 2017. The New York entity had yet to prepare it when the contract was rescinded.

This background is coupled with the conditional evaluations that almost all the plans submitted by the South Bronx Charter at the end of November 2021 got from the Public Schools Alliance Advisory Committee (OEPA, in Spanish), according to the recommendation summary that the committee submitted.

Of the four plans the New York-based organization submitted, only the financial one met the standard even though CPA Hans R. Mercado González signed it, noting that they did not provide financial or bank statements from the entity’s incorporation date. Mercado even warned that “important aspects of the academic and operational plan are partially considered in the budget document, which does not guarantee the full implementation of those plans.”

As for the academic plan, the indications surfaced because the request did not contain a description of the academic hurdles, needs, and challenges of the population to be served with recent data on their socio demographic profile. The entity failed to specify how it would serve Spanish-learning and immigrant students. Nor did it present a protocol to deal with disciplinary incidents, nor the quota per classroom and enrollment cap.

The South Bronx Charter did not carry out consultation activities among the Barrio Obrero community in Santurce, where it intended to open its branch at the Jesús María Quiñones School. CEDBI notified the Department of Transportation and Public Works, owner of the closed school, about the cancellation of the NAICA-PR contract so that it would not formalize the lease of the campus with the organization.

The educational project would be in the Jesús María Quiñones School, in Santurce.
Photo by Gabriel López Albarrán | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

The Committee also conditioned the approval of the operational plan to the organization updating the information on the roles and responsibilities of each member of the School Board and on how they would determine the salaries and increases of the teaching and non-teaching staff.

The OEPA advisory group comprises Assistant Professor Carlos Marichal Lugo and instructor María I. González Resende, both from the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) Bayamón Campus; the Associate Professor of the Mayagüez Campus, Rebecca Orama Meléndez, the Interim Dean of the UPR Río Piedras’ School of Education, Mayra Chárriez Cordero; and the Dean of the Pontifical Catholic University, Ana Báez Rodríguez.

In early August 2022, NAICA-PR signed a contract with the DE and later that month Sánchez-Longo and Méndez took workshops on the entity’s educational model after signing a job offer letter. They reported to the Casa Dominicana in Santurce in September, where “we couldn’t work on planning because we didn’t have books or curriculum. We were never given a curriculum or an employee manual,” Sánchez-Longo told the CPI.

Méndez and Sánchez-Longo signed timesheets to get their biweekly pay, but never received a contract to formalize their employment with the Escuela Alianza. Whenever they questioned the principal or the operations manager about when classes would start, neither could offer clear answers, assuring that they did not have ongoing communication with the executive director of the South Bronx Charter who signed the contract with the DE, Evelyn Hey.

It wasn’t until September 15 that Hey gathered the staff at the Casa Dominicana to ask them to create a school calendar that would “impress” the DE, Méndez said, “to work even on Saturdays, starting classes in October.” Then they took an inventory of furniture and equipment donated to the alliance school by Monsignor Scanlan High School in New York.

After doing that, Méndez said that “they left us in limbo.” Although Education notified the cancellation of the contract on October 6, it was not until the 16th of that month that Hey contacted the contracted personnel by video call to say that “[the school opening] could not happen. We’re sorry and we’re very disappointed.”

A fellow teacher asked Hey if she envisioned opening the school later, but her answer was that “Puerto Rico is not ready for better things,” Sánchez-Longo recalled.

Méndez, who had resigned as a preschool teacher at a Head Start center where she worked for five years, was able to get that job back.

At the time of the contract’s cancellation, EPACIAD had hired a principal, an operations manager, an instructor, an assistant, and five teachers. They never got a written notification of the job termination that Hey informed by video call.