It’s been nearly three months since Dr. Nivea L. Torres has been able to work or even visit her office, and more than a month since her resignation became effective, but what Dr. Torres wanted to talk about in a recent interview with CTLatinoNews.com is about “Tomorrow’s Framework,” a strategic plan the Connecticut Technical High School System board formulated and she implemented. It was designed to reshape the district’s mission and foster a greater awareness of its innovations and achievements in preparing the workforce of tomorrow, and while by all accounts it has been quite successful, ironically it was also one of its components that led to Dr. Torres’ resignation.
Torres, who served four years as CTHSS superintendent, leaves it to others to comment on her suspension, the state audit and investigation into CTHSS’s handling of state and federal funds that preceded her May 1 resignation in what the Courant newspaper called a “dizzying reversal of fortunes for Torres, 47.”
Members of the Latino and educational community immediately stated that the questioned expenditures were made with the board’s knowledge and approval and that she was being scapegoated.
Some supporters called her treatment by the media, which has spotlighted use of public funds for diploma framing and social media postings to tweak her and the department’s image, as “disappointing,” “unprecedented,” “hurtful” and condemning her and destroying her career without due process.
Within an hour after the state education commissioner’s announcement of the suspension of Torres and Sandi Casberg, a key aide, the Courant newspaper began publishing a series of articles about Torres and the spending issues.
Anyone using Google to look up Torres will encounter a series of news reports, usually accompanied with a picture of the superintendent, about which the Courant portrayed as a scandal.
The articles reported that a state audit was under way regarding the $4.5 million CTHSS paid to The Pita Group.
The ensuing newspaper’s headlines tended to stress that the $169,000 per year superintendent used “taxpayer funds on custom framing, food, photo-shoots.” There was also a story that Torres spent $11,000 for three “status posts” per week over a few months on the LinkedIn professional platform and that $3,500 was spent on a “photo shoot” and $759.95 was paid through Pita for custom framing for her diplomas and other documents.
“I have never seen anything like this, how they went after Nivea,” said Estela Lopez, vice chairman of the state Board of Education which had overseen the tech schools until a separate board was created in 2012.
Lopez said that, as a state board leader, she asked to hear both sides in executive session, but “this could not be done because this is a personnel matter.”
Former CTHSS Board member John Barrasso said the CTHSS board “was aware of what was spent and that it was consistent with our strategic plan.” Barrasso, was one of 11 people from industry and education appointed to the newly created board to take over governance of the system in July 2012 from the State Board of Education. Barrasso, is the longtime executive vice president of the state’s Mechanical Contractors Association.
Dr. Torres, who grew up in Puerto Rico, received B.A. in international politics in 1991 from Pennsylvania State University’s Erie Campus. She began her career in education about 24 years ago and worked several years in Puerto Rico where she earned a master’s degree in English as a Second Language from the Pontifical Catholic University in 1997.
In Connecticut, Torres worked as a bilingual and curriculum specialist for the Windham Public Schools while she earned a doctorate in 2006 in curriculum and instruction from the University of Connecticut. In 2007, she became principal of Windham Center School, a post she held for three years before joining CTHSS where she initially was an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
By 2014, Dr. Torres had become one of the state’s most prominent Latinas. She moved up from interim to official superintendent, and the Middletown resident was named Latina Citizen of the Year by the state’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission.
“I am very proud of being a Latino woman,” Dr. Torres said. “I consider myself a change leader and consensus builder.”
Dr. Torres even received support from Latino leaders as a potential commissioner of education based on her work as CTHSS superintendent, her 24-year career in bilingual education and school administration, mostly in Connecticut, and a desire that a Latino should have an important role in education. However, early in 2015, Governor Dannel Malloy appointed Dianna Wentzell as commissioner.
The Strategic Plan
With this momentum and an extensive educational background, in 2014 Torres and the then two-year-old CTHSS board, began work on the board’s strategic plan, “Tomorrow’s Framework.“ Their task, to establish the framework for a “paradigm shift,” according to the plan’s mission statement for the systems’ 20 schools and training sites, for the development of a workforce needed to sustain and grow the state’s economy.
The former superintendent said that the technical schools are a major factor in creating a skilled workforce that will attract businesses to Connecticut. “There is a need for an influx of young talent,” Torres said.
Dr. Torres said the effort she and the board had been making to transform the district is now “coming full circle.” As an example of the plan’s good “return on investment,” she cites the district’s graduation rate, 97.4 percent overall and 99 percent at Oliver Wolcott Tech in Torrington and Norwich Tech. She added, “Not many districts can tout this.”
Along the way in implementing the strategic plan, Dr. Torres says every decision was made “in consultation with the tech board and to fulfill the board’s charge” that the plan was needed to change the state’s workforce. She noted that for three years the board concluded that her work “exceeds expectations.”
Barrasso agrees with Torres’ assessment, saying that the strategic plan is “absolutely” successful in doing what its designers wanted. He cited the state and national recognition and that the graduation rate was “super.” The tech schools are no longer the state’s “best kept secret,” said Barrasso. With most of its graduates attending college or moving quickly into the workplace, the technical school system has achieved national recognition and maintained a high graduation rate.
The former board member observed that it took a year to create the plan and that “with 20 schools out there and each had to be handled differently. We have to tailor our advertising to that and to who we are,” Barrasso said.
A cornerstone of the strategic plan, Dr. Torres said, was to develop partnerships with industry and business. She expressed pride in the FAA-approved aviation maintenance technology schools for adults at Sikorsky in Stratford and at Pratt & Whitney in Hartford. She also noted that Platt Tech in Milford has developed a partnership with NASA.
The strategic plan revolves around a “readiness continuum” designed to train students for high-demand, high-paying jobs. This approach includes making sure students are ready to work in terms of workplace behavior; that they are job ready, possessing the knowledge to begin an entry-level position; career ready, possessing the knowledge and learning skills to succeed in a certificate program; and college ready, prepared to succeed in general education courses.
Thanks to its plan, Dr. Torres said, the district has demonstrated that, as a state agency, it can meet the challenge of being nimble enough to meet changing workforce needs.
As examples, she cited the addition of health technology programs this year at Bullard-Havens in Bridgeport and A.I, Prince in Hartford; the bio-environmental program launched last year at A.I. Prince and bio-technology at Norwich, and the inclusion of solar energy within the industrial programs at all the schools, Torres said.
In addition, CTHSS has introduced what Dr. Torres described as an energy efficient curriculum. This includes the “E-House” initiative which, according to the action plan, is designed to prepare students for emerging job opportunities in renewable energy and energy efficiency fields.
CTHSS’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed at the national level. The district rates in the top ten in the Skills USA tech education competition, its former superintendent reported. The sound engineering program at Prince Tech has been ranked No. 1 in the nation for two years.
Marketing and Public Relations
The now infamous marketing and outreach component of the plan, Dr. Torres said, was important to address several needs. These included letting CT residents know what the tech schools do and how they serve the public. She noted that residents can benefit from the schools, as they can continue to get services, such as automotive maintenance, performed by trained students at a “fraction of the cost” of private businesses.
Dr. Torres said, there also was a need to reach out to business for mentors and possibly jobs for students as well as the need to make sure people were aware of “how the system affects workforce development,” she said.
“There is still work to be done,” Dr. Torres said, in regard to diversifying the enrollment and teaching staff. This includes bringing more minority teachers and mentors into the program, as well as attracting more students from the suburbs, Torres said.
As it turned out, how CTHSS under Torres invested in public relations and marketing to spread the word about the district’s innovation and leadership became the flashpoint in a series of events that included Torres’s resignation.
In March, questions raised in a routine audit of CTHSS’s handling of more than $4.5 million in payments and contracts to the The Pita Group of Rocky Hill for marketing and public relations were cited by Commissioner Wentzell as the basis for placing Torres and a top aide on a highly publicized leave of absence and her request for a state Department of Administrative Services investigation.
Barrasso said the CTHSS board “was aware what was spent and that it was consistent with our strategic plan.” What we, the board, looked at with our strategic plan” was who would best implement it and put “our face forward. … she was it.”
Although Torres is reluctant to describe herself as the “face” of the new CTHSS, she was very much the prime target of media coverage, particularly in the Courant newspaper, regarding the investigation of the state’s spending of millions with Pita for enhancing and expanding its public image.
Torres declined to address the state audit and investigation during her interview with CTLatinoNews.com, at the office of her attorney, Gregg Adler a partner in the West Hartford labor and employment law firm that includes Daniel Livingston, the chief negotiator for the state employees union coalition.
While Dr. Torres was interviewed during the internal investigation, the Department of Administration Report does not include specific findings and recommendations related to her role.
The DAS did issue a strong condemnation of the contracts and payments made to Pita, citing a violation of DAS rules and that federal money was paid to the Rocky Hill firm for “purposes not in line with the purposes of the grant.”
However, the investigation report almost exclusively focuses on the actions of Athanasula Tanasi (also known as Sandi Casberg), the education consultant who worked with Torres. The report recommends that Wentzell take disciplinary or remedial action against Casberg, which as of June 13 was pending while the commissioner continued to review the report.
“There is no employment action that can be taken regarding Dr. Torres now that she has resigned her position,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Education.
On April 24, Torres submitted her resignation with a week’s notice in a letter to Wentzell and the CTHSS board without stating a reason. Her closing sentence is: “I wish you much success as you set new goals and milestones for the system.”
In accepting the resignation, Wentzell and Robert Trefry, the CTHSS board chairperson, issued a statement, but did not mention the investigation or the questions that lead to Torres being suspended, nor was there mention of her work on the technical school system’s strategic plan.
At this point, Dr. Torres would not specify where and in what role she hopes to continue her career, but stressed, “I am fully committed as an educator to work for students. That is my passion.”