School & District Management

Former Puerto Rico Ed. Secretary Arrested, Charged With Fraud

By Andrew Ujifusa & Evie Blad — July 16, 2019 4 min read
Former Education Secretary Julia Keleher works with her team in a makeshift office at the Convention Center of Puerto Rico in San Juan in October 2017 after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Julia Keleher, the former education secretary of Puerto Rico, was arrested by federal agents in Washington last week on fraud charges stemming from allegations that she improperly steered millions of dollars in government contracts to consulting firms, including one run by her close friends.

Keleher, 44, faced praise and sharp criticism as she led the territory’s school system, which educates more than 300,000 students, through the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Education Week followed Keleher, as well as her supporters and critics, during multiple reporting trips to the island as it traced the school system’s difficult recovery. She stepped down three months ago, initially agreeing to remain as a paid adviser to Puerto Rico’s education agency before abruptly withdrawing from that position shortly thereafter.

Keleher was arrested along with the island’s former director of health insurance administration, Angela Avila, and contractors who worked with the insurance and education departments, U.S. Attorney Rosa Emilia Rodríguez Vélez said.

A grand jury indictment alleges she illegally steered a $95,000 Puerto Rico education department contract through a corrupt bidding process to an unqualified company run by her close associates at the consulting firm Colon & Ponce. It was run by sisters Glenda E. Ponce-Mendoza and Mayra Ponce-Mendoza. A separate count alleges a scheme through which Keleher and others awarded more than $13 million in department contracts that included $220,000 in illegal commissions. Keleher did not personally benefit from the scheme, Rodríguez said at a press conference.

“This type of corruption is particularly egregious because it not only victimizes taxpayers, it victimizes those citizens and students who are in need of educational assistance,” said Neil Sanchez, the special agent in charge of the southern regional branch of the U.S. Department of Education’s Inspector General’s office, which investigates misuse of federal education funds.

Keleher was released to return to Puerto Rico following an initial court appearance in Washington Wednesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said. Her arrest followed months of public speculation that she was under federal investigation. Messages left for Keleher last week seeking comment were not returned. In April, Keleher started a new research and marketing firm, Solution Partners, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, who had appointed Keleher to the top education job, denounced those who had been arrested in a Twitter post last week. “No one is above the law. Everyone who fails must face the consequences,” the governor said.

Leading a System in Crisis

During her tenure as education secretary, which lasted more than two years, Keleher said she was intent on overhauling Puerto Rico’s public schools even before Maria hit the island.

Decrying a system that she said was inefficient and failed students, she broke up the department’s bureaucracy to provide more local control to different regions of the island, backed what became a landmark 2018 law to institute charter schools and vouchers, and approved the closure of hundreds of public schools because of low enrollment.

Before Maria hit the island, the public schools enrolled roughly 350,000 students. A year later, at the start of the 2018-19 school year, that number had dropped to 308,000. Last summer, Keleher’s department permanently closed 263 public schools, more than 20 percent of the total. That followed the closure of 179 schools in summer 2017, amid a $120 billion debt-and-pension crisis in Puerto Rico.

Her supporters said she was bringing much-needed change and energy to a system in which students had produced dismal academic results for years.

The federal Education Department backed the island’s attempts to expand educational options. In a 2018 speech, Frank Brogan, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said Puerto Rico would be a “beacon” of choice and a “laboratory” for people to observe.

But Keleher’s detractors, including the Asociación de Maestros de Puerto Rico, the island’s teachers’ union, alleged she was defying the will of parents and educators and shattering the island’s public schools in the name of unproven solutions.

In a Facebook post, the teachers’ union called Keleher’s arrest a “sad day” for the island’s public schools and highlighted its previous disagreements with Keleher.

Members of Congress also had criticized Keleher’s decision to close schools and Puerto Rico’s expansion of school choice.

“The proposal in Puerto Rico to transition to charter schools and the use of private school vouchers is one that mirrors what happened in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina,” said presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in March of last year, about three weeks before a bill creating charters and vouchers was signed into law by Rosselló.

A version of this article appeared in the July 17, 2019 edition of Education Week as Former Puerto Rico Ed. Secretary Arrested, Charged With Fraud


Student Well-Being K-12 Essentials Forum Boosting Student and Staff Mental Health: What Schools Can Do
Join this free virtual event based on recent reporting on student and staff mental health challenges and how schools have responded.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Curriculum Webinar
Practical Methods for Integrating Computer Science into Core Curriculum
Dive into insights on integrating computer science into core curricula with expert tips and practical strategies to empower students at every grade level.
Content provided by

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Rising Tensions From Israel-Hamas War Are Seeping Into Schools
As effects of the war reverberate in school communities, schools have federal responsibilities to create discrimination-free environments.
5 min read
People gather in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Vt., for a vigil, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. The three students were being treated at the University of Vermont Medical Center, and one faces a long recovery because of a spinal injury, a family member said.
People gather in Pliny Park in Brattleboro, Vt., for a vigil, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, for the three Palestinian-American students who were shot while walking near the University of Vermont campus in Burlington, Vt., Saturday, Nov. 25. Tensions over the Israel-Hamas war are playing out in schools and colleges across the country, including some K-12 schools.
Kristopher Radder/The Brattleboro Reformer via AP
School & District Management The Missed Opportunity for Public Schools and Climate Change
More cities are creating climate action plans, but schools are often left out of the equation.
4 min read
Global warming illustration, environment pollution, global warming heating impact concept. Change climate concept.
Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week and iStock/Getty Images Plus
School & District Management 13 States Bar School Board Members From Getting Paid. Here's Where It's Allowed (Map)
There are more calls to increase school board members' pay, or to allow them to be paid at all.
Two professional adults, with a money symbol.
School & District Management Opinion Bad Sleep Is a Problem for Principals. Here’s What to Do About It
Our new study highlights the connection between stress and sleep among school leaders, write three researchers.
Eleanor Su-Keene, David E. DeMatthews & Alex Keene
5 min read
Stylized illustration of an alarm clock over a background which is split in half, with one half being nighttime and one half being daytime.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week via Canva