Puerto Rico’s political leadership is unraveling at high speed, pushed along by an ex-education secretary’s arrest last week and the leak of private messages between Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and his top officials that include derogatory comments about the teachers’ union president.
Julia Keleher, who was appointed by Rosselló as secretary in late 2016 and served as the island’s schools chief until April, was arrested last Wednesday on fraud charges related to how she handled millions of dollars in government contracts. Her arrest reignited ongoing debates about her and the governor’s successful push to expand educational choice, close hundreds of schools, and reform the island’s education bureaucracy, as well as her status as a non-Puerto Rican.
See Our In-Depth Coverage: Putting Puerto Rico’s Schools Back on Track
Then on Saturday, the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico published hundreds of pages of private messages—mostly in Spanish—between Rosselló and some of his top advisers. The leaked messages have caused a political firestorm on the island, leading to several resignations and growing calls for the governor to step down.
Among the messages’ targets was the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s teachers’ union, and its president, Aida Díaz. In a Dec. 19, 2018 exchange, the then-chief financial officer of Puerto Rico, Christian Sobrino, responded to a statement from AMPR about union negotiations by saying in English, “I DONT [sic] NEGOTIATE WITH TERRORISTS!”
If that epithet sounds familiar, you might be thinking of former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who once called the National Education Association a “terrorist organization.”
Four days earlier, in response to other comments from Díaz in support of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, Sobrino said he was “salivating” at the idea of shooting a person or people. However, it’s not entirely clear from Sobrino’s remark about shooting if he meant Cruz, Díaz, or both of them, or someone else. In the messages, Rosselló responded that this would be helpful to him. (Sobrino announced his resignation on Sunday after these and other messages were made public.)
In response to the messages, El Vocero newspaper in Puerto Rico reported Sunday that Díaz called on the governor to resign; the union president claimed the remark about shooting was directed at her. Announcing a lawsuit against Sobrino and Rosselló, Cruz said the threat was directed at her. On Monday, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten also called for the governor to resign, saying that the governor “personally led and condoned hateful and racist attacks against Puerto Rican citizens.”
The governor also had not-very-kind things to say about Paul Pastorek, the former Louisiana superintendent who led the state’s schools following Hurricane Katrina and was hired by Keleher last year as a consultant. (Read more on Pastorek here.) Upon learning that Pastorek had received a $250-per-hour contract from Puerto Rico’s education department, Rosselló called Pastorek “a monster.”
It’s noteworthy that the governor essentially attacked the decision by his own education secretary to hire Pastorek. The governor doesn’t elaborate on his distaste for Pastorek in the leaked messages.
In another 2018 exchange, responding to a story about the musician Bad Bunny—who was born in Puerto Rico—Sobrino asked if Bad Bunny would be opening a charter school (it’s not clear if Sobrino asked the question in jest). Earlier that year, the governor approved charter schools to open in Puerto Rico.
Photo: Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló holds a press conference, almost two days after federal authorities arrested the island’s former secretary of education and five other people on charges of steering federal money to unqualified, politically connected contractors, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Carlos Giusti/AP)