PROVIDENCE — After speaking with Governor Daniel J. McKee on Tuesday, state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green asked Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters to resign, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Peters has been under fire for hiring Olayinka Alege, a Providence school administrator who has been charged with assault for allegedly forcibly massaging a teenage boy’s foot.
“After conversations with Governor McKee and community members, yesterday the Commissioner asked Superintendent Harrison Peters for his resignation,” spokesman Victor Morente said.
McKee spokeswoman Andrea Palagi said, “As the Governor said yesterday, we must do what is best for the students. Asking for the superintendent’s resignation was the right thing to do.”
On Monday night, members of a state Senate oversight committee grilled Peters about his decision to hire Alege, whom he worked with for more than three years in Florida before deciding to hire him in Providence.
“I thought I knew him,” he said. “But I was wrong. My hiring of Dr. Alege as a network superintendent for Providence Public Schools was an error in judgment. I want to sincerely apologize for any pain or worry this incident has caused students.”
McKee met with Infante-Green on Tuesday afternoon to talk about the situation. “We want to do what’s in the best interest of the students of Providence,” he said.
Senator Louis P. DiPalma, chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics, and Oversight, said, “I think that is absolutely the right decision. On multiple levels, Superintendent Peters showed a lack of judgment. When you have bad judgment and you lose trust, what happens next is people lose confidence in your leadership.”
DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat, said Peters withheld key information by not telling the search committee about news reports from 2009 that Alege had been accused of squeezing the toes of multiple boys — a practice referred to as “toe popping” — as an unusual form of punishment.
“He rolled the dice that the past situation of 2009 would not reoccur,” DiPalma said. “What he did was gamble with the lives of Providence Public School District students.”
Alege was arrested on May 10 and pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor assault charge on May 13. He has resigned from his job overseeing middle- and high-school principals in Providence. He was never charged in connection with the Florida incidents.
Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, a Democrat who heads the Senate’s Providence delegation, said McKee and Infante-Green made the right decision in calling for Peters’ resignation.
“Under no circumstances could I see how the superintendent could continue,” she said. “It’s terrible that Superintendent Peters didn’t tell anyone about the background of Dr. Alege, and he tried to hide it.”
Goodwin said she is “horrified” by the allegations that Alege assaulted a teenager in Warwick, and she said she is “fearful” that an investigation could turn up other incidents involving students in Providence.
Meanwhile, Goodwin said that she believes Infante-Green needs to answer more questions about the matter.
“I spoke to several of my colleagues on the Senate floor yesterday, and they think the commissioner has some more explaining to do,” she said. “The big question is: Who knew, when did they know it, and when they did know, what did they do about it?”
During Monday’s hearing, Infante-Green said she did not learn of the Florida incidents until after Alege was hired. “I apologize,” she said, explaining she had trusted that the hiring process was being done correctly. “Moving forward, I will be part of the process for higher-level hires.”
Goodwin said she has requested another Senate oversight committee hearing on the matter. “We have a responsibility to follow through on this, especially for the kids,” she said.
Also, a House spokesman said House Education Committee Chairman Joseph M. McNamara will soon ask Infante-Green testify before that committee.
Goodwin said she plans to introduce a bill requiring that any state takeover conclude after two school years – forcing the state to conclude its intervention in Providence after the 2022-2023 school year. And she said plans to submit legislation to require that any city with four-year election cycles, such as Providence, have elected school boards.
“One thing is very clear: the way we have been doing business does not work,” Goodwin said. “We need elected school committee officials who are accountable by the voters, not just the mayor.”
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza issued a statement Wednesday, saying, “It’s clear Superintendent Peters must resign, and that we need new leadership in the district. This entire situation has been extremely disturbing.”
Also, Elorza said he is “beyond disappointed” by the slow pace of the turnaround of the city school district, which the state took over in 2019 following a scathing report by Johns Hopkins University researchers.
He said the turnaround process is starting to resemble the “failed intervention” in the city of Central Falls. He said Central Falls schools have been under state control for 30 years, yet it is “the worst school district in the state.”
In a Zoom call with reporters, Elorza the only reason Providence turned the school district over to the state two years ago was to allow the state to use its powers under the Crowley Act to “radically transform” the teachers contract.
“Nothing is going to fundamentally change until we have a new contract, and that needs to be done ASAP,” Elorza said. “They have been on the clock for over a year. I have been very clear with them for a long time that they just need to get on with it and reform the contract.”
Giving the district back to Providence without reforming the teachers contract “consigns our kids, another generation of kids, to the same old school district that has been failing them for 40 years,” Elorza said. “That’s unacceptable.”
Elorza said the biggest issue with the “restrictive and regressive” contract is seniority.
“So many decisions are made based on what’s in the best interests of the adults and not necessarily on the best interest of the children,” he said. “On everything from school assignment to personnel decisions, seniority plays way too large of a role, when really what should play the biggest role is: Who are the teachers who are actually delivering for our kids?”
When asked if he thinks Infante-Green should step down as commissioner, Elorza said, “I’m not ready to say that. But I will say this: Invoke the Crowley Act and reform the contract. If you are not willing to do that, then step aside, and let someone who will reform and transform the contract do that.”
Elorza acknowledged that he had previously told Peters and communicated to the commissioner’s office that he was “trying to get to the bottom of all of this” and was not ready to call for the superintendent’s resignation at that point.
“But everything changed after the hearing on Monday,” he said. “The fact that he knew about this, he didn’t share it with the hiring committee, he kept it to himself. That was just unacceptable and convinced me we need new leadership in the district.”
Elorza said he ended up telling Peters: “This is ending with him leaving the district, one way or the other other.”
Despite the mounting pressure, Harrison had not resigned as of midday Friday.
On Friday afternoon, Infante-Green wrote to Providence families, saying, “The last few weeks have been extremely difficult for our community. I know that, like me, many of you were upset and disturbed to learn about the charges pressed against Dr. Olayinka Alege, former network superintendent for PPSD, as a result of an incident at a fitness gym in Warwick. “
She noted that, after talking with McKee, she asked Peters to resign.
“Changes in leadership are always hard, but I want you to know that as the Commissioner of Education entrusted with leading this transformation, I am as committed to our turnaround effort as I was on the first day of the state’s intervention a year and a half ago,” Infante-Green wrote.
She said she would soon have more information “about interim leadership” for Providence schools. “But in the meantime, my team and I will continue to lead decision-making for the district,” she wrote.