During her rise from teacher to superintendent of Connecticut’s 10,500-student technical high school system, Nivea Torres has earned professional recognition and has become so highly regarded within the state’s Latino community that several of its leaders advocated for her selection two years ago for the then open position of state education commissioner.
Torres not only did not get the appointment, but she now finds her professional status and public image resting on very wobbly legs, having been indefinitely suspended by Dianna Wentzell, who was eventually chosen to head the Department of Education. Torres has become the most visible figure in a widely publicized investigation of the millions of dollars that the Connecticut Technical High School System paid to a marketing and public relations firm during her tenure as superintendent.
It remains unclear as to whether any specific payment to the Hispanic-owned Pita Group of Rocky Hill triggered the investigation. The Department of Education’s only public response being that issues emerged during a routine audit of these expenditures and the suspension was not a disciplinary action. However, coverage in the Hartford Courant, the state’s largest newspaper, has focused on CTHSS paying more than $11,000 for Pita to produce content favorable to Torres on social media.
A more recent Courant report focused on Torres spending $84,000 on membership for 1,312 tech school employees in a national educators’ group. Some 236 of these teachers and administrators were eligible to vote in the association election of officers, with Torres being an unsuccessful candidate last September.
Moreover, Torres has remained silent on her situation, with one state education official, commenting off the record, that the superintendent is unable to respond because she has never seen the results of the audit. In addition, the superintendent has been forbidden to communicate with any state official.
“It appears that even if she (Torres) is cleared of any wrongdoing, in the court of public opinion she got dragged in the mud,” said State Rep. Christopher Rosario (D-Bridgeport), a member of the legislature’s Education Committee and chairman of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
“So what has been a very promising career for a very professional, smart and hardworking young woman is at risk,” according to a prominent figure in the state’s education and Latino community, who like several others contacted, would only comment off the record, citing a lack of clear information as to what is being investigated and a desire to maintain some neutrality.
Torres’ career was suddenly put on hold, if not permanently damaged, on March 16 when Wentzell announced that the state Department of Administrative Service has agreed at her request to conduct an “outside investigation” focusing on issues arising from an ongoing audit of payments CTHSS made to the Pita Group from 2014 through 2017, the period Torres has been superintendent, under advertising and marketing contracts.
Wentzell placed both Torres and a top assistant, Athanasula Tanasi, on paid administrative leave. Wentzell ordered them to stay away from their offices and any of the 16 technical schools unless requested to appear, and prohibited their contact with any state officer or employee as well as anyone involved in the services under review.
Wentzell said “that no conclusions have been reached at this time and this is not a disciplinary action.” She also said there has been “no culpability assigned” to Torres. In addition, the commissioner sent letters to CTHSS principals and parents and guardians of students announcing that the superintendent “is on leave” but without giving the reason.
Still, Latino leaders have suggested that an impression of guilt has been created by media coverage which has focused on Torres, as the key figure under scrutiny, featured smiling photos of the superintendent, repeatedly mentioned her $169,000 annual salary, as well as the $123,000 Tanasi receives and reported that more than $7.4 million was paid from 2014 to 2017 to Pita Group for its services, including more than $11,000 to prepare social media postings for Torres.
Estela Lopez, a member of the state Board of Education, questioned the fairness of the current situation for Torres, noting that the public cannot hear the superintendent’s side, since it is unclear as to what are the particulars of the investigation. “What we want is due process for her,” said Dr. Lopez, who retired last year as provost of the Connecticut State University System.
In her letters to Torres, Tanasi, and DAS Commissioner Melody Currey, Wentzell said the audits, started last fall, raised “issues of concern.” These included “potential violations of state or federal laws or regulations, potential violations of policies concerning contracting, procurement and use of state or federal funds, potential neglect or misuse of state funds, and the possibility that activities detrimental to the best interests of the agency or the state have occurred.”
Within hours of the commissioner issuing the suspension, the state’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant, posted a story under the headline, “Tech school chief suspended, under investigation.” That story and subsequent reports featured photos of Torres smiling. That evening, television station WFSB, reported on its website, “Technical high schools superintendent under investigation,” again with a photo of Torres.
Several stories in the Courant focused on a payment exceeding $11,000 made to Pita for social media exposure for Torres, which the Courant characterized as self-promotion in an editorial. In addition, state Rep. Melissa Ziobron, a Republican from the Colchester area, called this expenditure “outrageous” on her Facebook site.
Rosario said he was curious as to why Torres was suspended and only had the details that were released to the press. “I hope that she gets fair and equal treatment while this investigation is going on.”
Refering to the commissioner’s letters to the two administrators and Commissioner Currey, Abbe Smith, DOE’s director of communications, said, “the personnel investigation to be conducted by the Department of Administrative Services (DAS) relates to concerns about payments made to the Pita Group, which first came to light through a routine and ongoing financial audit.”
The Department of Education has maintained that the procedures announced in Wentzell’s letters were designed to ensure an independent investigation into the issues raised in the audit which also includes examining payments to Kozak & Salina, a government relations firm, located at the same Rocky Hill address as Pita Group.
Some officials also observed, off the record, that the board that oversees the technical schools approved the public relations contracts, payments and vendors.
Attempts by the media to contact Torres have been unsuccessful. The day after the suspension was announced, WFSB.com said it sent a reporter to Torres’ Middletown home, adding, “but no one answered the door.”
One explanation for Torres’ public silence, posed by one state education official, is that she has never seen the findings of the audit that prompted Wentzell’s actions “so she cannot respond.” Moreover, it was noted Torres cannot say anything because this is a personnel matter.
As for the Pita Group, the multi-faceted agency has “done everything the department has asked and crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’,” said John Droney, a Hartford attorney representing the Rocky Hill agency. “We don’t understand what is going on,” he said.
Under Paul Pita, the chief executive officer and executive creative director, the agency has performed a variety of services for CTHSS since 2011, Droney said. The attorney noted that Pita is very proud of his work and that as a result the “vocational schools have flourished.”
Among the services Pita has provided included setting up interviews with Torres, other tech school staff and students for several stories that CTLatinoNews.com has published about CTHSS programs.
Torres joined the technical system as assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in August 2010. Previously she was principal of the Windham Center School. Earlier in her career she was a language arts and English as a second language (ESL) teacher and served as bilingual coordinator and curriculum specialist for Windham Public Schools. She also has worked as adjunct professor of curriculum at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education.
The Puerto Rico-born educator holds a Bachelor of Arts in Foreign Service and International Politics, a master’s degree in English as a second language, and a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.
Two years ago, Latino members of the legislature’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, as well as leaders of the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission and the Connecticut Hispanic Democratic Caucus, had lobbied for Torres to get the education commissioner post. She was not among the finalists and the position went to Wentzell, a longtime educator who was serving as interim commissioner.
Torres is a member of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and as such is entitled to a $500 reimbursement for any legal fees that she incurs. However, CAPPS does not comment publicly on these types of matters, according to Dr. Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director.
Similarly, the Department of Administrative Services cannot have any comment while its independent investigation is pending, said Jeffrey Beckham, staff counsel/director of communications.