Cronyism Gets in the Way of Decentralizing the Department of Education

While the Governor downplayed the resignation of nearly a dozen experts he had convened to decentralize and depoliticize the agency, the federal government asked him to put the community’s needs at the forefront of the initiative and ensure the right voices are seated at the table.

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Photo provided by La Fortaleza

Two weeks before Governor Pedro Pierluisi signed an executive order to create the Department of Education’s (DE) Initiative for Educational Decentralization and Regional Autonomy (IDEAR, in Spanish), the Office of Management and Budget (OGP, in Spanish) had already awarded a legal services consulting contract and evaluated a proposal of more than $5 million for professional services to work on the plan that would grant greater autonomy to the Department of Education Regional Offices in the decision-making process.

As early as May 2, 2023, the OGP hired Consultora Legal PSC to “identify critical legal considerations for the decentralization” of the DE for $70,000. Three weeks later, it contracted IOTA Impact Company Inc. for $5.2 million, which established work guidelines for the creation of Local Educational Agencies (LEAs) to replace the DE’s Regional Educational Offices.

While millions were pouring in to contract external advisory services, local prestigious academics and experts from different disciplines had voluntarily joined the working groups convened last year with the goal of contributing to the depoliticization of the agency, an evil that for years has impacted the DE, that has a budget of more than $31 billion.

But this week at least nine of them resigned en masse after denouncing the politicization of the work committees and that the process became one lacking transparency and participation, especially after the arrival of Education Secretary Yanira Raíces.

A U.S. Department of Education spokesperson told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI, in Spanish) that: “Since we started our work, community engagement has always been a key and necessary pillar for the decentralization of Puerto Rico’s education system. We are disappointed about the departures of several members of the IDEAR committee and appreciate the concerns they have raised. We urge the Puerto Rico Department of Education to ensure the decentralization process is truly placing the needs of the community at the forefront of this important effort and that the right voices are at the table.”

Governor Pierluisi assured that contracting IOTA was a recommendation from the federal government and insisted that “they [the company] have experience in other jurisdictions.”

IDEAR is funded with federal funds, and the Government of Puerto Rico has no interference in the contracts with IOTA or Consultora Legal PSC, OGP press spokeswoman Wilmelis Márquez assured. The U.S. Department of Education did not clarify who ordered the hiring of the companies.

Members of academia and the nonprofit sector who left the initiative this week requested that IDEAR’s current decentralization process be halted and that the first LEA to be implemented in August be abandoned. However, the Governor rejected that recommendation.

“The work continues and there will be no delay in the established plan. The goal is for at least one local educational region (LEA) to begin operating in August,” Pierluisi insisted.

The Governor downplayed the resignations in written statements. “The reality is that we’re on the right track and what we want is to have educational entities at the regional level with direct access to federal funds, with human resources, purchasing, and legal affairs divisions to meet their needs,” said Pierluisi.

The pilot projects have already begun in three areas that include the schools of the municipalities of Utuado, Orocovis, Yauco, Guayanilla, Guánica, Mayagüez, Añasco and Hormigueros. Superintendents were also chosen for three pilot zones and Local Advisory Councils (CAL) were formed.

The DE Wants to Decentralize Through Unilateral Decisions

Among the experts who resigned are José Caraballo Cueto, economist and researcher, who has been part of the University of Puerto Rico’s (UPR) Public Education Observatory; UPR Law School Dean Vivian Neptune; Eileen Segarra, professor at the UPR and director of the UPR Public Education Observatory; Angeles Acosta, clinical psychologist and associate professor at the UPR Medical Sciences Campus; Janice Petrovich, a consultant to foundations and non-governmental organizations and former director of global education work at the Ford Foundation; Yolanda Cordero, professor at the UPR Graduate School of Public Administration and part of the UPR Public Education Observatory; Attorney Cecille Blondet, director of Espacios Abiertos, an organization that promotes citizen participation; Attorney Enrique R. Colón Bacó, expert in education issues from the Espacios Abiertos team; and Enery López, from Liga de Ciudades, an entity that seeks to unite local governments in a non-partisan effort.

More than being related to external hiring, the group of experts’ resignation to their participation in IDEAR is linked to their conviction that the promised depoliticization of the Department of Education and the proposed decentralization of the agency are no longer part of the discussions in the working groups formed for the process that began in 2023, they said.

In August 2023, Chris Soto, senior advisor to U.S. Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, had explained to the CPI the goals of the plan that they promoted in the Puerto Rico Department of Education. “An important part of the [decentralization] plan is how superintendents are chosen. That they aren’t elected by their political party. Let’s be clear, that’s what people say. And this doesn’t happen in other jurisdictions. So, what we discussed in the plan is establishing a process in which superintendents are chosen on merit. There are requirements. Same thing applies to directors. We’re going to determine what the process is, so that it isn’t a political decision, but rather that the director has the experience to run their school,” Soto said.

But the reality was that while there was talk of depoliticization, Secretary Raíces named more officials in positions of trust in the working groups, led by the director of IDEAR, Roger Iglesias, son of the namesake former New Progressive Party (PNP, in Spanish) senator. This caused “a constant struggle” between those who believe in the democratization of education within the committees and the DE establishment, the CPI learned in conversations with people familiar with the process.

One of the DE’s actions that most bothered members of IDEAR was that the guidelines sent by the Secretary of Education to the Legislature reversed much of what was established in the working groups. The guidelines seek to establish the duties and processes and procedures, which are currently carried out at the central level, but which would be delegated to the Regional Educational Offices.

The document sent to the Legislature perpetuated the centralization of power in the figure of the Secretary of Education and did not incorporate essential suggestions presented in the IDEAR working groups to include the participation of superintendents and CALs in DE regulations, transparency and allowing participatory processes in the definition of school budgets, among other proposals.

The IDEAR working groups became more of a “one-way information management spaces where the DE consults but doesn’t respond to members’ requests for information.” This was the claim of nine members of the implementation committees, who on April 15 submitted a collective resignation letter to disassociate themselves from the process, dissatisfied with the fact that decisions continue to be made at the central level.

The determinations, they said, are being made hastily and without clear metrics on how the success of pilot projects in three school regions to establish the first LEAs will be evaluated.

Another issue that created the greatest controversy was agreeing on a formula to establish the budget per student (known as the “per pupil” formula) because, among other reasons, the economists that the DE used to establish it were not part of IDEAR nor were they related to the school community.

Committees Flooded with PNP Loyalists

Last year, Iglesias was appointed as director of the initiative and eight teams were formed to address the areas of special education, human resources, reconstruction, operation of Local Educational Agencies, governance, purchasing processes, academic management, and finances. Some 162 people made up the eight groups.

The work in the groups was affected by “constant last-minute changes of dates and times” and the “constant inclusion in each meeting of new DE representatives without disclosing positions or roles,” effectively limiting participation, according to the letter from the group that resigned.

Of the Secretary of Education’s 93 positions of trust, at least 14 are on one of the eight IDEAR committees. Five of these employees are in two or even three work tables. For example, there are four trusted agency employees along with three other DE administration officials, on the LEA Committee.

Raúl Colón Torres, special assistant to Secretary Raíces, who earns a monthly salary of $9,599, leads the LEA team. He was Interim Superintendent in the Bayamón region, as well as Director of School Management. That group also includes the DE’s Secretary of Planning and Performance, Lydiana López, who earns a monthly salary of $6,821.

Another trusted member of this committee is the director of the Ponce regional educational office, Roberto J. Rodríguez Santiago, with a monthly salary of $8,050. Rodriguez Santiago is the Electoral Commissioner for the PNP in Ponce. Ángel Tardy Montalvo, special assistant to the Secretary and employee of the Special Education Student, Parent, and Community Services Unit, who earns $6,250 per month, is also part of the team. The Dean of the UPR Law School, Neptune; and Doctor in Education and philanthropist, Petrovich, walked away from the committee this week.

The average annual salary of teachers in Puerto Rico is $33,000.

Meanwhile López, of the Liga de Ciudades, resigned from the Governance Committee, a team led by Luis A. Orengo Morales, special assistant to the Secretary and donor to the Governor and the PNP. He also served as Interim Director for the San Juan region in 2017, from which he was removed after Hurricane Maria over his performance and the prolonged closure of schools that had not suffered serious damage. He was also Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Guaynabo.

Economist and Director of the UPR Census Information Center in Cayey, Caraballo Cueto, resigned from the team that seeks to decentralize the purchasing processes. This group is led by the Director of the DE Purchasing Office, Norma J. Rolón Barada, an official who has remained in charge of the Purchasing Office during PNP and Popular Democratic Party (PDP, in Spanish) administrations. At this worktable there are three other of Raíces’ trusted employees: Duhamel Adames Rodríguez, Jullymar Octavianni and Wanda E. Muñoz Valle. Adames Rodríguez is Regional Superintendent, Octavianni is Undersecretary of Administration earning $10,884 per month, and Muñoz Valle is assistant to Undersecretary Luis R. González Rosario, who also directs one of the IDEAR working groups.

Jimmy Cabán, a Pierluisi and other PNP figures donor, who earns a monthly salary of $9,142 as Assistant Secretary and oversees the Teaching Career program, heads the Human Resources Committee. The UPR denied him a professional certificate after plagiarism was detected in a project. In addition, he worked prominently in 2000 with early voting ballots in the State Election Commission. UPR professor, Cordero, resigned from this group, in which Adames Rodríguez and Octavianni are also members.

Caraballo Cueto and the professor and Director of the Education Observatory, Segarra, withdrew from participating in the Finance Committee. María Lizardi, a Pierluisi donor and former Assistant Secretary of Human Resources under the administration of convicted former Secretary Julia Keleher, leads this group. Octavianni is also at this worktable along with another trusted employee, the superintendent of the San Juan region, Jorge A. Santiago Ramos.

Assistant Undersecretary for Academic and Programmatic Affairs, Beverly Morro, who was mentioned in 2023 as a possible Secretary of Education, also heads one of IDEAR’s working groups. She has been a donor to the PNP and Governor Pierluisi’s committee. Associate Undersecretary Luis González Rosario, who is an engineer, heads the table related to the physical plant of the schools. His arrival at the DE in the summer of 2022 from the Department of Transportation and Public Works was said to have been imposed by La Fortaleza, although the then Secretary of Education Eliezer Ramos Parés denied it. He has been a frequent donor to the PNP, the Pierluisi committee and PNP Representative Gabriel Rodríguez Aguiló.

Governor Ignores the Recommendations of the Experts He Assembled

Points like those made by the resigning experts were brought up to Iglesias as early as December 11 in a letter signed by three members of the Local Advisory Councils (CAL). In that letter they stated, for example, that they only had five days to read the essays of the superintendent candidates in their area before sending a recommendation to the Secretary of Education. This is even though, as Soto, the assistant to the U.S. Secretary of Education, explained, the participatory, decentralized, and depoliticized selection of regional superintendents is supposed to be an essential part of this project promoted by the U.S. Department of Education.

The criteria or evaluation methodologies of the pilot projects were not explained to the School Councils either, they warned.

“The pilot [projects] seem like standardized processes without regional flexibility, which respond to the needs of each region,” said Eduardo Lugo Hernández, from the academic component of CAL from the West region; Helga Maldonado Domínguez and Gerardo Medina Rivera, both from the southern CAL family component.

As an example of the one-way work that the DE wants to impose, Medina Rivera, whose daughter goes to a school in Yauco, said he requested at a council meeting in February to visit schools throughout the southern region because “by being with other parents I realize that I’m a little alienated from what’s happening with other schools in the region” and that he only knew what was happening “at the school where my daughter goes.” However, his request was denied after it was brought to the central level by IDEAR’s representative on the council, Nidia Estrada. The explanation he was given was that the superintendent of the pilot, Anita Orengo, is the only one that “can visit and let us know what’s happening in the schools at the monthly meetings.”

Maldonado Domínguez, meanwhile, resigned from continuing with the project. Her vacancy was briefly filled by Mayra L. Acosta Muñiz. “I joined the CAL at the request of Mr. [former DE Secretary] Eliezer Ramos Parés,” said Acosta Muñiz. “I have a 30-year-old Special Education son who is still active in the DE. When the vacancy came up, I joined, but I was only there for a week because from the first day I said that I didn’t want to be just a rubber stamp.” On March 23 she submitted her resignation to Iglesias.

“I was skeptical when I entered the process, but with the intention of overseeing the process and in some way making them know that there are people who are watching them. But the idea that it was going to depoliticize…, we’re fighting against a very big monster, now in meetings saying that word is like saying a bad word,” said Medina Rivera.

“It has become clear to us that our participation at this time is symbolic, and we would be doing education a disservice if we became ‘rubber stamps’ to the extent that the process has been distorted from its initial objective,” the group of educators and advisors who withdrew from the initiative, stated.

The Contracts

Consultora Legal, chaired by Alberto C. Rodríguez Pérez, was hired to identify “the need for new regulations, standards and guides, or amendments, to achieve a decentralization approach.” The vice president of this firm, María Vázquez Graziani, is a frequent donor to Governor Pedro Pierluisi’s campaign committee, to which she has already donated $6,200 this year. That attorney and Rodríguez Pérez have also made donations to the PNP and several of its candidates.

IOTA Impact, incorporated in 2017 in Delaware and with offices in New York, was registered in Puerto Rico in March 2023, and on April 8 of that year it submitted its proposal to the government of Puerto Rico for the transformation of the education system. Its experience in the educational sector, as observed in the service proposal submitted to the OGP, is in Colombia. The company stated that it developed a strategic plan there for the decentralization of seven vocational institutes of the Ministry of National Education and designed the organizational restructuring of Colciencias, a public organization to promote scientific development. Other IOTA work focuses on Colombian private schools.

IOTA is a marketing research and public opinion survey company, according to several company directories that the CPI consulted, and as the company described itself on its website and in its service proposals. On its Facebook page, it promotes its work in Puerto Rico as a “success story” in which “we implement support in one of the 10 largest education systems in the United States with 45,000 employees and 250,000 students.”

In the presentation of its work in Puerto Rico on the social network, it urges people to: “Contact us now and discover how we can work together to boost the success of your business with new solutions and tangible results!”

On September 27, the corporation’s contract was amended to extend its term and increase it to $9.7 million. The amendment came after IOTA submitted a proposal on September 19 detailing a timeline for implementing the six pillars of transformation identified in the first IDEAR Executive Committee report. A second amendment was signed on January 26, 2024 to extend its validity until December 31. Services are billed between $400 and $115 per hour.

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