With one top administrator resigning and another under an indefinite suspension, Latino representation in the top rungs of the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE), already disproportionately low, is close to reaching the vanishing point.
Isabelina Rodriguez, who was serving as interim chief academic officer and bureau chief of special education, has submitted her resignation after working for the state since March 2015.
In a March 28 letter to education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell, the bilingual educator said she had taken a position in Massachusetts, closer to her family, as executive director of a charter school. Rodriguez came to Connecticut after having served as superintendent in Northampton, Mass. and in Granby, Conn. which borders the Bay State.
Rodriguez said she is applying accumulated vacation time to allow her to assume her new job as soon as possible and expects to be out of her current office no later than May 1.
At the same time, the only other Hispanic evident in the CSDE’s most recent organizational chart, Nivea Torres, superintendent of the Connecticut Technical High School System, can’t even visit her office.
Torres, who has headed the technical school system since 2014, has been placed on. paid leave by education Commissioner Dianna Wentzell pending the outcome of a state inquiry into her department’s expenditures for marketing and advertising. The commissioner said this suspension is not a disciplinary action, however, Torres may not go to her office or communicate with her staff, other state employees and state vendors, unless requested to do so.
While the departure of Rodriguez and the suspension of Torres appear unrelated, the accumulative effect, according to one Latino educator, commenting off the record, is that “there are no Hispanics left” in key posts within a department which describes its mission as to “ensure equal opportunity and excellence in education for all Connecticut students.”
The CSDE, as the administrative arm of the state Board of Education, is charged with distributing funds to the state’s 166 school districts and also operates the state technical school system where about 35 percent of the 10,500 full-time students enrolled are Hispanic.
While reluctant to comment on the ongoing investigation which has sidelined Torres, Latino leaders and legislators have expressed concern that their community not be left outside the room when decisions are made that impact the growing Latino public school population.
State Rep. Robert Sanchez (D-New Britain), who is vice chair of the legislature’s education committee, observed. “We have so many Latino children in these schools,” he said, “we have to have at least one Latino in a good position.”
As of publication, Wentzell had not replied to a request for a comment by CTLatinoNews.com on the role of diversity among CSDE’s primary administrators.
Even with Torres and Rodriguez active among the CSDE’s more than two dozen top administrators, Latinos were under represented. Currently, Latinos comprise about 15 percent of Connecticut’s overall population but enroll more than 22 percent of the approximately 525,000 students in public schools, according to the 2014-2015 education department report.
Moreover, the trend is clearly one in which overall public school enrollment is declining but the number and proportion of Latinos in the system is steadily increasing. At the same time, there has not been a significant increase in Latino teachers.
Over the last five years, the teaching workforce has remained more than 92 percent white. In 2010-2011, the term in which Governor Dannel Malloy took office, 3.4 percent of the teachers were listed as Hispanic. Four years later, the percentage was 3.5 percent.
In recent years, Hispanics have achieved prominence in several areas of the state educational leadership. Two of the ten voting members of the state Board of Education, Estela Lopez of East Hartford and Maria Mojica of Hamden, are Hispanic. Lopez also recently served as interim provost of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System.
In addition, with the elevation of Zulma Torres as president of Central Connecticut State University, Hispanics are now at the helm of four of the 17 state universities and colleges.
Torres had been seen as one of the rising Latinas within the state education community. Two years ago, she was promoted by Latino leaders as a candidate for the commissioner job that eventually went to Wentzell. However, with her suspension and the adverse publicity surrounding the investigation, Torres’s career and reputation have taken a significant hit and even if she is vindicated her future is seen as uncertain.
Wentzell has stated her request that a third party, the state Department of Administrative Services, conduct an “independent” inquiry related to “various areas of concern” that arose during an ongoing audit started last fall and that the focus is primarily on more than $4.5 million on marketing and communications expenditures, mostly going to the Pita Group, a Hispanic-owned firm based in Rocky Hill.
Within a few hours of Wentzell announcing the suspension of Torres and a top assistant, media coverage featured smiling photos of the superintendent. Subsequent stories in the Courant focused on more than $11,000 paid to Pita for postings on the social media platform LinkedIn and “$84,000 in taxpayers’ money” used to buy memberships for 1,312 tech school staff members in a national educators association, a nonprofit group in which Torres later unsuccessfully ran for office.
While Torres has not publicly commented on the investigations, others involved in the education system have explained these expenditures were part of a strategic plan to increase awareness of the vocational system and the separate CTHSS board that oversees the schools had supported and approved these contracts.
As for the announced departure of Rodriguez, Sanchez also expressed the hope that Wentzell would consider another Latino for a prominent position.
Commissioner Wentzell issued a statement praising Rodriguez “as a passionate leader and a tireless advocate for children – especially those who have special needs. She is a dedicated public servant whose leadership has had a positive impact on education in our state.”
Rodriguez’ efforts in Connecticut were also praised by Andrew Feinstein, who heads the Feinstein Education Law Group, which represents children with disabilities and their parents seeking an appropriate education.
In a letter to Wentzell, Feinstein called the resignation of Rodriguez “a tragedy for the children of Connecticut.” The Mystic-based attorney added, “Her dynamic and creative leadership has lead to significant improvements in public education” and urged Wentzell to appoint a “dynamic chief” for the Bureau of Special Education.