It’s hard to shed a tear for Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters right now.
Not after a top school district administrator that Peters brought with him to Providence from his last job in Florida was charged with assault for allegedly forcibly massaging a teenage boy’s foot in a Warwick gym in April.
Especially not after you consider that Olayinka Alege was accused in 2009 of squeezing the toes of multiple boys – apparently this is called “toe popping” – as a bizarre form of punishment when he was an administrator in Florida.
Alege was arrested on Monday and pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charge on Thursday. He has resigned from his job overseeing middle- and high-school principals in Providence. He was never charged in connection with the Florida incidents.
So when Peters told me Thursday that he had just pulled an all-nighter because “I feel horrible” about the accusations against Alege and the distrust that is now roiling through the school community, there was only one question that came to mind: Are you going to resign as superintendent?
“I feel strongly about not resigning,” Peters said. “This is hard for me. I am perfectly imperfect. I make tons of decisions every day. I got this one wrong.”
For now, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is sticking by Peters, too. And Governor Dan McKee is monitoring the situation, but he wants to leave hiring and firing decisions in the hands of the commissioner. Remember, it’s fair game to ask both Infante-Green and McKee about such a local issue because the state controls Providence schools.
There’s going to be a lot of debate in the coming weeks about whether Peters should be shown the door, or if firing him based on someone else’s conduct is an overreach, but what is clear is this incident needs to serve as a final warning for the superintendent.
Peters’ contract calls for him to receive a performance review on an annual basis, and he’s eligible for pay raises at the discretion of Infante-Green. Since that review hasn’t happened yet, let’s take a quick look at the facts.
The district’s relationship with its teachers has deteriorated beyond repair, and the union is already lobbying lawmakers to end the state takeover. Labor tension is rarely a good thing, but if Peters and Infante-Green were making substantial changes to the contract, they would at least be able to justify a fight.
Instead, the teachers and the district are no closer to a new contract than they were on Peters’ first day on the job. The only winners so far are the district’s lawyers, who are racking up billable hours during every half-hearted negotiation session.
Adding insult to injury, Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin and several state senators on Thursday called for an oversight hearing into the district’s hiring of Alege. It’s a good idea because there has been very little oversight over the takeover, especially since the school board and City Council were stripped of their authority.
Peters has scored a few victories. He’s working with the Rhode Island Foundation to hire more teachers of color. There’s a solid plan in place to repair the district’s crumbling schools. And there’s at least a set of ambitious goals in place that allows the public to monitor the status of the takeover.
But even he acknowledges that there’s no chance the district can triple test scores in certain grades and raise the graduation rate if the district finds itself stuck in another year without a teachers’ contract. Never mind the teacher morale problem he’s facing.
Now the assault charge against Alege raises serious questions about Peters’ judgement.
He said that he was aware of the toe-popping claims in Florida, and moved to hire Alege anyway. He said that the district’s hiring team gave Alege high marks across the board, and he was the one who vouched for Alege.
In order to win back the community’s trust, Peters is going to have to do more than talk to the press. At the very least, he should send a letter home to every parent apologizing for the actions of Alege. He’s considering hiring an outside firm to review Alege’s work calendar and touch base with any person he had contact with in the district over the last year.
But even that might not be enough to restore confidence. The teachers aren’t going to let Peters forget about this incident. And parents and lawmakers aren’t going to let him off the hook very easily.
Turning such a low-performing district around already seemed nearly impossible. Now, even if Peters succeeds in that, he still has a lot more to prove.