PROVIDENCE — The morning after state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green met with Governor Daniel J. McKee, she asked Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters to resign. Peters had been facing severe criticism for hiring Olayinka Alege, a Providence school administrator that was charged with assault for allegedly forcibly massaging a teenage boy’s foot at a Warwick gym in April.
Peters was introduced in January 2020 by former governor Gina M. Raimondo, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, and Rhode Island Board of Education Chairwoman Barbara Cottam to a crowd of elected officials, teachers, faith leaders, and others involved in the turnaround of Providence public schools. Mayor Jorge O. Elorza did not attend.
Providence has been known to pay less than comparably sized school districts in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but the three-year deal that Peters signed was more lucrative than previous Providence superintendents’. Peters agreed to an annual salary of $225,000, with a three percent raise each year and the possibility of additional pay increases “solely at the discretion” of Infante-Green.
Peters previously worked at schools in Houston, Chicago, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg in North Carolina. When he was tapped to lead the Providence system, he was the deputy superintendent and chief of schools for Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida. He bounced from one school district to the next, and told the Globe at the time that he planned to stay in Providence “as long as it takes and as long as I’m effective.”
Here are the key moments leading up to where things stand now.
The state took over Providence schools — why?
A scathing report by researchers from Johns Hopkins University released in the summer of 2019 outlined a series of recurring, disturbing issues that plagued the district, including arranged fights between female students that were promoted on social media, rodent traps that were stuck to students’ shoes, and collapsing ceilings in classrooms. The report also said that only 14 percent of students in grades three through eight were considered proficient in English language arts on the 2018 Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System, or RICAS, exam, and just 10 percent were doing math at grade-level.
The report led Infante-Green to recommend that the state take control of the school system, taking oversight away from the mayor, City Council, and school board.
Contract negotiations with the teachers’ union fell apart
Infante-Green told the Globe in January 2020 that she wanted to embark on what was seen as the most consequential act of the state’s takeover of Providence’s school system: a contract negotiation with the Providence Teachers Union. It was expected that the talks would be tense, and both Infante-Green and Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro had repeatedly said at the time that everything was on the table as they prepared to negotiate. And then the pandemic hit.
The union contract expired in August 2020. In an interview in November 2020, Infante-Green said negotiations were going “nowhere.” Calabro told the Globe then that the state was looking to develop a “thin contract,” which would define salaries, benefits, and working conditions, but little else. The union prefers a thicker contract, Calabro said, because it requires the district (or the state) to follow through on commitments.
Providence teachers voted “no confidence” in Infante-Green and Peters
In March 2021, the Providence Teachers Union took a a vote of no confidence in Infante-Green and Peters. The vote, which was held virtually over a weekend, came as the school department sent displacement notices to 270 employees to inform them that they would have to apply for different jobs in the next school year.
Former Rhode Island Supreme Court justice Frank Flaherty was hired as a $350-an-hour mediator to help the two sides reach an agreement on a new union contract.
A Providence school leader was arrested for an alleged unwanted foot massage
Olayinka Alege, 40, is the network superintendent of secondary schools in Providence and oversees the city’s middle and high schools. He was arrested and charged with simple assault for allegedly massaging someone’s foot without their consent at a gym in Warwick in April. Alege was placed on paid leave following the incident and has since resigned.
But Alege had a history of assaulting students. He was accused in 2009 of squeezing the toes of multiple boys as a bizarre form of punishment when he was an administrator in Florida. The students at the time told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that it didn’t hurt, but they didn’t like it, either. He was never charged in connection with the Florida incidents.
Peters had worked with Alege in Florida, and while he says he was not aware of previous allegations of inappropriate foot-touching by Alege when they worked together, he was aware of it by the time he decided to hire Alege in Rhode Island. This revelation has added to existing tensions around the state takeover of Providence Schools, in which Peters is a key player, calling his judgement into question.
Peters said he wasn’t going to resign
On Monday, Peters apologized for hiring Alege. In a letter to state senators, Peters said he had worked with Alege for more than three years in Florida before deciding to hire him in Providence after becoming superintendent in 2020.
“I thought I knew him,” Peters said in the letter, submitted to members of the Senate Committee on Rules, Government Ethics, and Oversight. “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.”
During a committee meeting Monday, Peters told senators that he had not been aware of the 2009 news reports of Alege squeezing the toes of multiple boys.
But after becoming Providence’s superintendent, Peters did a Google search, he said, saw those articles, and questioned Alege about the toe popping before hiring him.
“When he told me that he had meant no harm and that, in hindsight, he understood that his behavior was inappropriate and would never be repeated, I made a decision to believe him — a decision I felt was supported by the facts,” Peters wrote in his letter.
McKee announced that he would meet with Infante-Green
At first, Infante-Green said she was sticking by Peters, and McKee was “monitoring” the situation. Peters told the Globe that he felt “strongly about not resigning.” But on Tuesday, the governor announced he would be meeting with Infante-Green that afternoon to talk about Alege and Peters. At the time, he declined to say whether he thought Peters should step down because of the scandal.
But he said, “We want to do what’s in the best interest of the students of Providence.”
Peters was asked to resign
On Wednesday morning, Infante-Green asked Peters to resign.
“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.”