HYDE/JACKSON SQ.—Community activists and others last week lamented former Jamaica Plain Head Start director Joyce Tanner’s leaving that position after 15 years heading the school-readiness program—a move Tanner told the Gazette she made under duress.
Tanner told the Gazette she might take legal action against her former employer.
“A lot of people, including myself, love [Tanner] dearly, and love the work she has done,” state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez told the Gazette.
Joyce has been, in terms of the community, an outstanding partner,” said Margaret Noce, who heads the public health advocacy coalition JP Tree of Life/Arbol de Vida. “She was tireless in terms of making sure youths and families got other services, not just the traditional Head Start educational stuff.”
That included things like setting up eye-screening sessions for the students, and, as classes were transitioning to elementary school, setting up fairs where, in addition to information about public schools and charter schools, information about GED programs and other adult education programs was provided for the students’ guardians, Noce said.
“She was always thinking of ways to include the community to make sure the children’s needs were met,” she said.
“Joyce was one of the mainstays of the JP community, especially for the children in Hyde and Jackson squares,” long-time community activist and JP resident Harry Smith said.
Head Start is a nationally administered school readiness program for low-income preschool students with local chapters around the country run by local non-profits.
Boston’s Head Start program is run by the non-profit Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD). Contacted by the Gazette, Yvette Rodriguez, Head Start and Children’s Services Director for ABCD, said that Tanner resigned voluntarily in August.
“It was a very professional, respectful meeting…She resigned and I accepted immediately,” Rodriguez told the Gazette, discussing Tanner’s resignation. “We are grateful to her and thank her for all of her years of service.”
Tanner, however, told the Gazette a very different story.
“I had a hip replacement in early June,” Tanner, who is 66, said in a phone interview. “I was on medical leave until Aug. 20.”
The first week Tanner was back Rodriguez called her into a meeting. Tanner said she thought it was going to be about the building rent at JP Head Start’s 315 Centre St. location in JP Plaza, and another personnel issue.
“She proceeds to say one thing after the other, criticizing the program,” Tanner said.
Rodriguez, Tanner said, had ordered an audit of the JP Head Start program while Tanner was on leave. “She was saying there are too many kids in the classrooms and too many special needs students.”
Asked by the Gazette about the audit, Rodriguez said, “I can’t go into those details” about personnel issues.
Tanner told the Gazette that there were sometimes more than the mandated number of students, and particularly of special needs students, in classrooms, because JP Head Start is one of the few Head Start programs that runs an extended day program. Some students would attend Head Start programs in the morning, and then go to Boston Public Schools-run programs in the afternoon, returning to Head Start for a few hours at the end of the day before their parents could pick them up. JP Head Start staff generally did not count the children waiting for their parents at the end of the day in their classroom counts, she said.
JP Head start is also one of the few in the city with a Spanish speaking staff, Tanner said.
There were other paperwork issues that Tanner was trying to deal with during her first weeks back, she said.
Overall, “I don’t think that is a reason for firing somebody…We had parents in other programs trying to get into JP. We had a very good reputation. It was a very alive, very welcoming program,” she said. “I know darn well JP Head Start is head-and-shoulders above other [Head Start] programs.”
At any rate, Tanner was not technically fired. Her initial meeting with Rodriguez ended, Tanner said, with Rodriguez saying Tanner would soon receive a written report from the audit. But Rodriguez called her into another meeting the next week with ABCD’s human resources manager.
Feeling she was going to get fired, Tanner said, she preemptively resigned. She offered to stay on for another month, but Rodriguez told her she had to clear out her office that day, she said.
“I thought, ‘There is nothing I can do.’ I was just so angry,” Tanner said. “After 15 years, [Rodriguez] said, ‘You can say goodbye to the staff, take your personal possessions, and leave.’”
Tanner “is not involved with the transition because she resigned,” Rodriguez told the Gazette. Asked why Tanner might be expressing displeasure about the circumstances of her parting ways with the program, Rodriguez said, “I really don’t know.”
Tanner told the Gazette that her relationship with Rodriguez had been frosty since Rodriguez took over the Children’s Services and Head Start director position earlier this year. Tanner said she had publicly expressed hope that someone with more experience than Rodriguez, who has only been at ABCD since 2007, would get the position.
She told the Gazette she had been thinking about Mary Dooley, the longtime director of East Boston Head Start, who is now serving as JP Head Start’s interim director. Head Start’s fall classes started Sept. 13.
Rodriguez told the Gazette ABCD is currently looking for a new permanent director to replace Tanner.
Tanner meanwhile, who has spoken to a lawyer, said that despite having resigned, she believes she can challenge her removal, possibly on the grounds of age discrimination or because Rodriguez did not give her a written report following the audit and implement a standard disciplinary procedure.
She also said she suspects that her high salary after 15 years of service might have provided motivation for her removal. “I know ABCD is having budget problems.”, she said.
Keeping her on for the beginning of the new school year would
have extended her employment into ABCD’s new fiscal year, she said.
Luz Dary Sarria, head of JP Head Start’s extended day program, was also recently let go, Tanner said. The Gazette was not able to contact Dary Sarria by press time.