Reviews will look at Ruiz's tenure, handling of principal

File photoSalem Schools Superintendent Margarita Ruiz

SALEM — The city’s school board was in the midst of a comprehensive review of Superintendent Margarita Ruiz’s tenure leading the Salem Public Schools when the extent of her actions related to the sudden turnover in leadership last month at Salem High School came to light after an investigation by The Salem News.

Now, amid a public furor at Ruiz’s handling of the situation, the School Committee will also closely scrutinize Ruiz’s actions leading to the abrupt resignation of Jennifer DeStefano on March 13 and the same-day hiring of Vittoria Pacifico, who is not licensed with the state to work as a public school principal.

Emails obtained by The Salem News showed Ruiz contacted Pacifico — who has extensive experience in private Catholic schools — about the job several weeks before DeStefano resigned, and offered her the position for 18 months. Ruiz then personally intervened with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and its commissioner, Jeff Riley, when she learned Pacifico did not have a principal’s license.

All of this was done out of the public eye and without any apparent consultation with School Committee members, whom Ruiz answers to. Ruiz, however, does have the discretion to hire and fire school principals. 

The School Committee expects to receive the finished “360-degree performance review” of Ruiz within the next two weeks, possibly before its next meeting on April 22, according to Mayor Kim Driscoll, who chairs the committee.

The review, conducted by retired Revere Superintendent Paul Dakin, is a much more detailed version of an annual performance review that would measure a superintendent’s performance year to year.

“(It’s) an opportunity to allow us to have better insight into her leadership style, how people report directly to the superintendent and others who have recently left, (and) what their thoughts and feelings were with respect to what’s going on, areas of challenge,” Driscoll said in an interview Tuesday. The process began some months ago and was first discussed last fall, she said — well before the situation at Salem High boiled over.

Interviews for the 360-review were complete as of Monday night, according to Driscoll. As for the second review, the mayor made that announcement Monday afternoon, ahead of the committee’s regular meeting, which saw a large turnout from parents, and even some students upset with Ruiz.

“We’ve asked the superintendent for... information as to what occurred, why it occurred,” Driscoll said. “We expect to get that from her and be in a position to respond with what actions we might take.”

Part of that involves wading through a pile of communications several inches deep, Driscoll said, adding that the committee simply needs to find a time to meet to begin that process.

One inquiry is bleeding into the other, she acknowledged.

“It’s important that we’re in a position to determine what steps we want to take with regard to these matters,” Driscoll said. “They’re being conflated together because they’re happening at the same time. Some of the information in that, obviously, will have carry-over.”

Both reports will be made public.

As for Pacifico’s license, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has said she has 90 days to obtain the license or get a waiver. That clock started ticking on March 13, according to district spokeswoman Kelley Rice.

Leadership turnover triggers review

School Committee member Manny Cruz, who had some strong criticism for Ruiz Monday night, has been regularly speaking and meeting with students since the news of DeStefano’s resignation, as well as acting as an envoy for high school issues.

“It’s very clear that there are operational problems that have led to the situation we find ourselves in,” Cruz said. “My role, as a School Committee member, is to take a look at the policy, budgetary and evaluation tools... What are the tools as a School Committee member that I have to right the ship?”

Cruz noted that the 360-review was launched in part from recognition of possible issues in the district. Chief among them was the fact that there had been “a substantial amount of turnover in the district last year,” he said.

Ruiz’s critics have frequently pointed to the fact that each school in the district has had a new principal since she took over in 2015.

“We were all mindful of the turnover,” Cruz said. “We welcome the new leaders, of course, but we felt it was more important to understand the turnover.”

Exit surveys for departing leaders weren’t producing the feedback the School Committee needed, he said. What the district did need was a former school administrator who understood confidentiality and could get departing employees to still talk candidly.

“I give deference to his process,” Cruz said, referring to Dakin. “He obviously has a tremendous amount of respect for confidentiality and how it is nuanced.”

Ruiz welcomes all review

When asked about all the activity, Ruiz said Tuesday that she welcomed it.

“I’m looking forward to engaging in that discussion with the School Committee,” Ruiz said, of the in-depth review from Dakin. “These reviews are ways for leaders to learn about strengths and areas of growth, and also to celebrate the things that are going well. So I’m looking forward to that process.”

She said she’s also eagerly awaiting the School Committee’s separate review of Pacifico’s hiring.

“I feel very confident that once they do that, it’ll be confirmed that I haven’t done anything in violation of any rules or regulations,” Ruiz said. “I’m hoping that the committee will be able to see for themselves that that was the case.”

She also responded when asked about the accusations from parents and others that while her actions may have been legal, they were unscrupulous being purposefully conducted away from public scrutiny.

“I heard those concerns loud and clear and understand where they’re coming from, and validate them,” Ruiz said. “Now, it’s about looking for ways to improve on the communications and the rebuilding of trust in the district.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.