English High alumni protest headmaster

February 16, 2007
By

JOHN RUCH

STONYBROOK—At least two prominent English High School alumni are joining some teachers in calling for the replacement of Headmaster José Duarte, including a planned meeting as early as this week with City Councilor Chuck Turner, chair of the Education Committee.

“[Duarte’s] been at the helm as my high school went down the drain,” said one of the alumni, who spoke to the Gazette on the condition of anonymity. “This guy is screwing up my high school.”

The complaining alumni also allege that Duarte has strong control over the non-profit alumni organization, the English High School Association of Boston, directing it to make unnecessarily large expenditures, sometimes to associates of his.

“It’s almost a poisonous atmosphere,” said Stephen Berkowitz, another alumnus and a member of the association’s key development committee. “There seems to be a clique there or guild there that seems hellbent on running the school into the ground.”

Duarte did not return a Gazette message for this article left with his assistant, Georgette Travis, who is also the association’s vice president and paid secretary. Also not returning Gazette phone calls were Manuel Gonsalves, the current president of the association’s board of governors and development committee, and his immediate predecessor, Nat Bolde.

However, Peter Powilatis, an association trustee who controls the group’s finances, defended Duarte and called concerns about expenditures “small potatoes.”

“I’m supportive of [Duarte] because I know what he wants to do and what his plan is,” Powilatis said. “There are three or four guys [in the association] who just don’t like the headmaster. When you’re top dog…not everybody is going to like you. That’s the way it is.”

“Those two have always got concerns about everything,” Powilatis said of the complaining alumni. “They’re always trying to badmouth a lot of different things. They have a different agenda.” When asked what that agenda is, he said, “I’m not going to get into that.”

Berkowitz said his concern was increased by his inability for at least a year-and-a-half to find the association’s financial statement—basically its Internal Revenue Service Form 990—at the group’s office within English High. The 990s are supposed to publicly available at its “principle office” under both the group’s bylaws and state regulations, according to Powilatis and the state Attorney General’s Office. Travis confirmed that the records are not available at the school.

The Gazette acquired recent 990s for the organization through the non-profit database web site GuideStar.org and provided them to Berkowitz. Berkowitz, a former bank manager, said the numbers appear to add up correctly and dispelled concerns he had that they might not.

The association’s basic financial and corporation information is properly filed with the Attorney General’s Office and the Secretary of State’s Office, according to spokespersons for both agencies.

History of controversy
The alumni complaints come as English High makes a controversial transition to a new kind of pilot school as a way of avoiding a state ruling that it is “chronically underperforming” academically. It involves a major reorganization that includes considering whether Duarte should remain headmaster.

Duarte has become a lightning rod for criticism from some teachers. Former substitute teacher Jeffrey Herman, backed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Boston Teachers Union, has a pending civil rights lawsuit against Duarte for allegedly banning him from the school for speaking out against military programs. Other teachers have complained about alleged bullying and other management problems as well. [See related article.]

The complaining alumni are reportedly allied with at least one teacher and have also joined forces with Herman, who told the Gazette he suggested the meeting with Turner. The group is said to total about five.

Boston Public Schools (BPS) spokesperson Jonathan Palumbo said the alumni concerns should be brought to the superintendent, adding that he is not aware of any such complaints.

“Our number one concern is how we move the educational program forward,” he said. “We’ll take into account any and all issues or possible issues or perceived issues, but we’re mostly focused on the reform issue.”

Alumni complaints
Duarte is a non-voting member of the association’s board. But, according to the anonymous alumnus, Duarte is an “unbelievable maneuverer” who has taken over the counting of votes, become close to Gonsalves and Bolde, and orchestrated a packing of the development committee to affect the outcome of at least one vote.

This has allowed Duarte to promote spending relatively large amounts of money when cheaper, but still effective, alternatives were available, the alumni said. However, they acknowledged, Duarte was not always successful in the alleged attempts.

During planning for the school’s 150th anniversary in 2005, Berkowitz said, Duarte and Bolde tried to persuade organizers to use a different restaurant that was about $5,000 more expensive, for unknown reasons. And, the anonymous alumnus said, Duarte and Bolde tried to persuade them to hire a photographer who was an acquaintance of Duarte for about $2,000, when the alumnus was able to hire the school’s own photography teacher for an at-cost fee of about $70.

“He wants us to go with his crony the photographer and spend a couple thousand dollars we don’t have to spend,” the alumnus said. He also alleged that Duarte later refused to accept the alumnus’s $500 donation to the teacher’s arts programs.

The anonymous alumnus said he hired a company to make a web site for the association for $750, including maintenance. But, he said, he was told that another version of the site was being created by “the headmaster’s buddy,” an assistant basketball coach. That version is the one the association now uses. Its cost is reported as $3,500 in the latest 990 form. The web site includes a relatively large amount of content and appears to be fully functional.

Powilatis said Duarte indeed “put [the site designer’s] name on the table,” but that the board approved the payment. “We decided to utilize him because he was around [the school],” Powilatis said.

In 2004, Duarte proposed hiring a private firm to raise funds for the school’s library at a cost of $20,000. After an interview with one firm, the decision was tabled. Then, “Very quietly, in September [2006], he hired a different [firm] to do the same thing,” the anonymous alumnus said of Duarte, adding there was “no vote at all.” The fee was reportedly about $16,800, plus 20 percent of any funds raised.

The alumnus said that when he protested this decision, “All of a sudden, I wasn’t on the committee anymore,” following a vote involving 15 brand new members, including students redefined as “alumni.” Powilatis said only some seniors who have pre-paid their association dues are considered alumni.

Powilatis said the board interviewed and selected the firm, adding that, “The headmaster will run [the fund-raising process], but the trustees will pay for it.” He acknowledged the cost was “pretty significant” and “costly, but it’s not way outside of our means.”

“I’m not so much concerned about the cost as I am [the firm’s] plan…and if it can be successful,” which he doubts, he said, noting that many of the old-school, wealthy alumni are dying off.

The alternative fund-raising idea was letting alumni work each other for free. The anonymous alumnus, who rattles off the names and class years of wealthy alumni with ease, claimed he could easily have raised $1 million to $3 million for the library if it was named for the late alumnus and famed Boston Globe sportswriter Will McDonough. He acknowledged he never actually talked to any alumni about it, but said, “I didn’t have to,” because he knows wealthy friends of McDonough well.

“If we’re going to rename the library after somebody, it’s going to be the J.P. Morgan Library” or another higher-profile alumnus, Powilatis said, “not just somebody who’s going to donate…[to] a sportswriter or something like that.” He noted that a similar plan to have a millionaire alumnus donate matching funds failed when no funds were raised.

Another alumni concern is a supposed $20,000 discretionary fund the association gave to Duarte to match one provided by BPS. Berkowitz said the nature of the fund is unclear. Powilatis said there isn’t a fund per se, but that Duarte can request extra money for items like field trips, subject to trustee approval.

“I look things over to see if they’re valid, not just ridiculous things,” Powilatis said. “That’s not a slush fund or anything like that.”

A final concern is Travis’s dual work as Duarte’s assistant and on the board. Berkowitz called it a “conflict of interest,” and the anonymous alumnus said much of the work is done on school time.

Travis said that most of her work is done after-hours, and that there’s little of it anyway. She said the association is trying to hire an official secretary to do the work, but is having trouble because it’s only about 10 hours a week. “No one can afford it,” she said.

Powilatis called concerns about her dual positions “ridiculous” and said the most she’s been paid in one year is $6,000.

Internal conflicts
Berkowitz and the anonymous alumnus said they once passed along complaints from some students that Duarte had cut all foreign language classes except for Spanish, which is already spoken by about half of the students. Both recalled Duarte replying, “‘Now the other half can understand them.’”

Berkowitz complained that Duarte regularly refers to plans to fix the school that never materialize. “He keeps saying, ‘We’re going to have great sports teams this year,’” Berkowitz said. “I couldn’t care less about the sports teams.”

“This school has zero pride whatsoever,” the anonymous alumnus complained, adding that he once asked some students if they have school pride, and they laughingly replied, “For what?”

“I especially like walking through the corridors and seeing the condoms on the floor,” Berkowitz said sarcastically, adding that has happened twice.

The complaining alumni and Powilatis all spoke about personality conflicts in the association, with the anonymous alumnus acknowledging having at least one embarrassingly loud argument with Bolde. And the anonymous alumnus mentioned racial and generational tensions as well between old-school white alumni and a now majority-minority school.

He said that included some students complaining about the honoring of old-school alumni as “looking at pictures of old white guys.”

“I know what I would’ve said 30 years ago, but I don’t use the ‘n-word’ anymore,” the alumnus said, adding, “I don’t care if it’s all black guys if it’s doing something for the school.”

Powilatis and the anonymous alumnus both mentioned making English High an exam school as a possible solution, with the latter claiming he knows a millionaire alumnus who is willing to “pony up in the eight figures if necessary to start our own school.”

Powilatis said English High’s problems are part of the nationwide move to teaching as preparation for standardized tests. But, he said, the real blame “all boils down to the students.”

“English High, unfortunately, has always been the fall guy ever since [desegregation] busing,” Powilatis said. “They get the discards, if you will…English High’s got to stop being a dumping ground for all the rejects.”

Berkowitz said that one of English High’s traditional strengths was that it was not an exam school. Instead, he said, it helped “a lot of kids who are late bloomers like myself…[and] had caring teachers who helped people like me who [otherwise] had no business being in college.”

“It’s not that these kids don’t want to learn,” Berkowitz said. “These kids have it tough enough.”