PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Rhode Island’s education commissioner said Tuesday it was less expensive to give former Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters a nearly $170,000 severance deal to leave the district rather than risk potential litigation if he had been fired.
“This was in the best interest of the district,” Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green told 12 News in her first interview since asking Peters to step down last week. “Our legal team … determined this would be less costly for the district because he does have standing.”
“We needed to move forward,” she added. “This was a big distraction for the work. At the end of the day, this was a better decision for the district financially.”
Infante-Green asked Peters to step down last Tuesday night after meeting with Gov. Dan McKee. Peters told her he would be consulting his lawyer, and after three days of negotiations with the R.I. Department of Education he signed a termination agreement.
Under the terms of the severance deal, Peters agreed to leave in exchange for six months of pay and benefits, due to him in a lump sum by June 10.
Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, a long-serving Providence Democrat, was among those who expressed outrage about the agreement.
“It is an absolute disgrace that any taxpayer dollars would be used to pay Superintendent Peters to leave,” Goodwin said Friday night. “He should have been terminated for cause if he wouldn’t resign.”
Infante-Green said she did consider firing Peters for cause, but indicated RIDE’s legal team advised her that negotiating an exit deal was the best option.
Peters’ ouster came after revelations that he hired Dr. Olayinka Alege last summer as a network superintendent in Providence, a top leadership position, despite knowing Alege had previously been accused of misconduct with students in Florida.
After Alege was arrested for allegedly forcibly rubbing an underage male’s foot at a gym in Warwick earlier this month, Peters apologized for what he called an “error in judgment” in hiring him.
Infante-Green said she found out about the Florida allegations in news reports after Alege was hired. While she said she questioned Peters about it at that time and took a “tighter rein” over hiring decisions, she did not ask Peters to resign last year.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” Infante-Green said. “He was disciplined, because he did not tell me.”
An internal review began Monday into Peters’ hiring decisions during his 15 months leading Providence schools, Infante-Green said.
“We have already started pulling files,” she said.
Meanwhile, plans for selecting a new leader to head the state-controlled school district are underway. Infante-Green said an interim superintendent would likely be named by the end of this week, with plans for the wider search to find a permanent leader to be announced next week.
“The search will include national and local,” Infante-Green said. “There will be a committee that will elevate some of the names to me.”
She added that McKee wants to be “very involved” in the process. The two have discussed an expedited timeline, with a superintendent in place by the end of the summer.
“We also want to keep the interim in place so there is support and continuity,” she added.
The district has had fragmented leadership in recent years, with six superintendents in the past decade when interim appointees are included. There have already been three leaders just during the year-and-a-half since the state took over; Fran Gallo served as interim superintendent until December 2019, with Dorothy Smith then serving temporarily until Peters arrived in February 2020.
Infante-Green was criticized during her first superintendent search for keeping the names of possible candidates private. She said the process will be more public this time around.
“There is a need to rebuild trust,” Infante-Green said. “I think that it only makes sense as we start healing in this situation that it be a more transparent process.”
The commissioner, who was hired by former Gov. Gina Raimondo, said she plans to stay in Rhode Island as long as McKee — or his successor if he is unsuccessful in next year’s gubernatorial election — want to keep her on. The Providence turnaround plan is five years long.
“I made a commitment to the students and the families, and I intend to honor that commitment,” Infante-Green said. “I don’t intend to go anywhere.”