SALEM — The newly appointed principal at Salem High School does not have a license to work as a principal in Massachusetts and has 90 days to get either a license or a waiver to continue in the job, according to the state education department.

Vittoria Pacifico was hired by Superintendent Margarita Ruiz on March 13, the same day that former Principal Jennifer DeStefano resigned. Pacifico has worked as a principal or president of four schools, but because they are private schools she was not required to have a state license.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, when asked by The Salem News on Wednesday, confirmed that Pacifico does not hold a Massachusetts principal's license. The spokeswoman, Jacqueline Reis, said Pacifico has 90 days to get a license or a waiver.

In an interview, Ruiz said Pacifico's lack of a license was a "non-issue" because of her extensive experience. 

"The biggest concern here was to get someone with experience and a track record who has done this in the past, and she has done this," Ruiz said. "What is most important is that we have someone with experience and that's exactly what the school needs right now."

Pacifico did not a return a call seeking comment.

Salem High School — with about 900 students — is ranked among the bottom 10 percent of high schools in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The school is in the midst of a “redesign” in an effort to improve that ranking.

Pacifico's hiring has been controversial because it came on the same day that DeStefano resigned for what the school district announced as "personal reasons." Parents at a meeting March 14 with Ruiz questioned how she came up with a new candidate so quickly.

Emails between Pacifico and Ruiz, released after a public records request by The Salem News, show that Pacifico was encouraged to apply for the Salem High principal's job in January, six weeks before DeStefano's resignation.

In a Jan. 29 email to Ruiz and Assistant Superintendent Kate Carbone, Pacifico said she was contacting them about the position of interim principal at Salem High School after a phone conversation with Beatriz Zapater. Zapater is an educator whom Ruiz has known for a long time.

Pacifico met with Ruiz on Feb. 4. The next day, Ruiz emailed Pacifico that "we believe you have the kind of experience and disposition that will be helpful in the work that needs to happen at the high school."

On Feb. 14, Pacifico wrote to Ruiz to thank her "for the wonderful opportunity to lead Salem High School — I am honored and thrilled."

On Feb. 25, Pacifico told Ruiz that she had applied for her principal's license in 1995 but that her paperwork "got lost in the red tape." Ruiz said she would contact state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley to help Pacifico get the license.

"My concern if we can't get your license is that you come under public scrutiny by the community for not being licensed," Ruiz said in an email. "I want to avoid this situation at all costs, especially when I know that you are more than qualified to hold these licenses."

In an interview, Ruiz defended talking with Pacifico about the principal's job for three months while DeStefano was still in the position, and helping Pacifico with her license request. Ruiz has not said why DeStefano resigned, other than to say it was "for personal reasons."

"Suffice to say, it was becoming clear that this was not going to be a good match," Ruiz said. "A parting of ways was pretty imminent. I did my due diligence, as a principal or superintendent or any hiring manager would do when they want to make sure there's a continuity of work."

Ruiz praised Pacifico for the work she has done in her first three weeks on the job. Pacifico has worked in education for 33 years. She has run an educational consulting company that helps to mentor new principals and works as an "administrator coach" for the school leadership program at Harvard University Graduate School of Education.

"I feel very strongly that this was the best thing for Salem High School," Ruiz said, "and I'm confident that time will continue to prove that in the long run."

Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or pleighton@salemnews.com.