A resignation, angry letter, 'morale problem:' Inside the PPSD drama spilling into public view

Drama within the Providence Public School District continued to spill into public view Wednesday night, becoming the subject of discussion at a School Board meeting during which one member resigned.

It began earlier in the week when a letter was leaked to the press, purportedly from "eight district-level leaders" who aired a long list of frustrations with other staff, primarily Joan Jackson, a senior adviser to Schools Superintendent Javier Montañez, and Rhode Island Department of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. The letter alleged that Jackson has "created a work environment that eight district-level leaders consider intimidating, hostile and abusive," and it also raised complaints about A-Venture Academy, an alternative-learning option in the district that houses a program accused of inflating grades.

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Providence Schools Superintendent Javier Montañez defended senior adviser Joan Jackson's work in the school district Wednesday night, saying she is "too valuable to this district and our students" to be removed from her position, as some have advocated.
Providence Schools Superintendent Javier Montañez defended senior adviser Joan Jackson's work in the school district Wednesday night, saying she is "too valuable to this district and our students" to be removed from her position, as some have advocated.

"We’ve had a letter that went out – nameless letter, unidentified, no one signed it, but it went out," Montañez said at the start of the meeting, evidently frustrated. He added: "When you choose to take conversations” and make them public, “it does nothing for our children.”

Board President Kinzel Thomas said he "found the letter to be concerning on number of levels," adding, "I worry about accountability when letters are sent anonymously."

Thomas said it is "clear that we have a morale problem that goes far beyond the union-versus-central-office narrative.”

“I’m worried about the culture in PPSD, and I believe that we are losing focus as to why we are all here in the first place," Thomas said. "I want a school district where people feel free to share their opinions without fear of retaliation."

'Disheartened' Diagneris Garcia announces her resignation

Shortly after, Diagneris Garcia, the board's only female member, suddenly announced her resignation, saying she plans to step down by Jan. 31.

Garcia, visibly upset, said she is “disheartened by the state of Providence public schools right now," said the climate is the “worst I have ever seen,” and pointed to “internal fractures” on the board.

Garcia said issues like the anonymous letter are “making it impossible for the board to fulfill its duties.”

Before concluding her remarks, Garcia presented the board with a list of several recommendations, including an audit of human-resources procedures and policies and the addition of a whistleblower policy to the district employee handbook.

Mark Santow, another board member, later said he isn't sure how much time he has left on the board, adding that he has been "constantly frustrated" by distractions. Santow cautioned Montañez that, in terms of dissent, "maybe there are things we're not seeing that we need to see."

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Superintendent Javier Montañez sends a tough email to cabinet staff

In a tough email to cabinet staff on Monday night, Montañez attempted to rein in the apparent dysfunction, warning staff that they can take jobs elsewhere if they aren't up to the task.

"This behavior is having a negative impact on the work we are doing every day to improve outcomes for students. That’s unacceptable, and it stops now," he wrote. "I expect you to be leaders and bring your concerns to me. This work is difficult. If it’s not for you, that’s fine because turnaround work is not for everyone. I am happy to support you and help you find another position or your next endeavor."

Referring to the anonymous letter, Montañez said: "As a Puerto Rican man, I take offense to the idea that I am not in charge, or not capable of being in charge. Every decision around here is made by me after I get information from our team. Statements like the one sent to media today make it sound like a person of color, me, is not equipped to lead."

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Lastly, the superintendent vowed that while he is in charge, Jackson would remain in the administration, describing her as "too valuable to this district and our students." Board member Night Jean Muhingabo had recommended during the meeting that Jackson be terminated, though he ended his comments after PPSD attorney Charlie Ruggerio cautioned him against commenting on an employee's job performance without the employee first being notified per the Open Meetings Act.

Ty'Relle Stephens, who with fellow board members Muhingabo and Jesus Nunez has repeatedly offered critiques of issues within the district, said he was "very disappointed" in Montañez's response to the criticisms raised in the anonymous letter.

"The concerns outlined in the complaint letter against the senior advisor did not fall on [deaf] ears, because I'm committed to getting this turnaround work right, with the right people in the right working environment" Stephens said, referring to the state takeover of Providence public schools. "If that means leading the charge to get PPSD turned back to local control, then that's what I would do."

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: PPSD board members say district has 'morale problem' as member resigns