SALEM — A performance review of ex-Superintendent Margarita Ruiz conducted in her final days leading the Salem Public Schools does little more than spotlight the noisiest of complaints facing the school district since mid-March: Communication is a major issue.
The interviews for the review directly line up with Ruiz's decision to appoint a new high school principal after the abrupt resignation of the last, a decision sharply condemned for its failures in communication.
The School Committee released a four-page report Tuesday night summarizing the results of a comprehensive, so-called "360-degree performance review." The document — four pages in total with no supporting materials — focuses heavily on communication issues in the district. It cost the district $4,092, according to city Mayor Kim Driscoll.
"The majority of those interviewed articulated that there needs to be much more, and better, communication between the School Committee, Superintendent and Central Office," wrote retired Revere Public Schools Superintendent Paul Dakin. "There were consistent comments questioning the lack of a team approach to solving problems and observing that often decisions were made without knowledge or input, even sometimes after meetings."
The remark stands out specifically for its connection to the resignation of Jennifer DeStefano as principal at the high school in March and immediate appointment of her successor. A Salem News investigation later revealed a vacancy in the occupied position had been discussed as far back as six weeks prior without the School Committee knowing.
"One way we could've avoided this crisis is to be transparent with us, the body you report to," committee member Manny Cruz told Ruiz at a meeting on April 8. "Trust is supposed to be reciprocal. As you utilize your administrative authority, it's imperative that you trust us to give you feedback, guidance and support."
The report represents Dakin's final assessment of the situation after interviews with 40 members of the Salem Public Schools community, including Driscoll, Ruiz, School Committee members and former and current administrators and school principals. The interviews all ran from March 6 to March 20, while the change in leadership at Salem High took place on March 13, midway into the review's interviews taking place.
'Communication was fragmented'
Interviews asked subjects to describe "something we should be proud of" and "something that needs to be polished." The overwhelming criticism of Ruiz, Dakin wrote, was communication.
"The communication was fragmented," Dakin wrote, "with interviewees noting that the chain of command was not followed and that School Committee members were often approached by parents and teachers to solve problems."
Dakin noted that "aggrieved individuals" like teachers and parents often bypassed "accepted protocol by not approaching their principal or administrator first" and going elsewhere with complaints.
"They said this practice led to a sense of distrust," Dakin wrote. "The general impression of those interviewed was that the relationship between the School Committee and Superintendent as well as the Superintendent and the community had room for improvement."
Other administrators said they often "did not understand the job descriptions of other administrators and felt that more had to be done so as to eliminate duplication of efforts." Further, Ruiz herself contributed "a similar confusion" as she "was in the process of taking active measures to address the communication issues during this school year by changing the structure of district administrator meetings."
"They all indicated a need for more opportunities to share information and to develop a common sense of purpose, something that many indicated was not being driven by the district's Strategic Plan," Dakin wrote. "The lack of effective communication throughout all constituencies was a frustration expressed by many interviewees."
'Celebrate the good things'
The review also focused on academics, which it quickly noted "have improved over the last four to five years."
But administrators interviewed "indicated that they were often working as if in silos," Dakin wrote, "not knowing what other programs were being implemented and what was happening in other schools that may be good to share."
The closure of Nathaniel Bowditch School in 2018 was "looked at universally as a necessity and a very good move" for non-English-speaking students, Dakin wrote. "Many thought criticism about the change came from the community because of a lack of communication and planning. Although they indicated it was the right thing to do, they agreed it was not done in the best manner because many felt the staff and parents were unprepared to accept the resulting changes in the school populations."
Further, Dakin characterized opposition to the decision as coming in part from community members who "were not ready for the diversity," more specifically "an 'old Salem' attitude that actually resisted the changes in the schools."
"That school closing, and with the help of an assignment plan, made the schools equitable for all with respect to poverty and ethnicity," Dakin wrote.
Wrapping up the report, Dakin provided a long list of recommendations "noted by the interviewees." The list includes improving communication from the Central Office, take a hard look at changes facing Salem High School, "assure all members of the SPS that they are valued," and finally, "celebrate the good things in the SPS."
Strengths, needs, and a blind spot
Driscoll responded to the report by saying it spotlighted "some things that were strengths of the superintendent," including the ability to make and stick to hard decisions and strengthening academics. It also highlighted others issues where, "had the superintendent still been here, those would have been opportunities to set goals to work on going forward."
"There's strong positives that the superintendent had that come through in this report," Driscoll said, "and obviously some areas for concern and growth — those are the things we've heard about in the last several weeks."
Driscoll referenced that as "a blind spot around communication that led to frustration both internally and externally."
But the fact that Ruiz has stepped down doesn't mean the body of work vanishes or becomes meaningless.
With a search underway for a one-year interim leader and a permanent one soon after, Driscoll said the report will help to establish goals for future leaders.
"It's useful information for whoever the leader is, because it speaks to the culture and what people are feeling," Driscoll said. "It gives a list of tasks for folks to work on... How do we bring people together as a team? How do we create more of a team in the central office?"