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Ex-headmaster’s staff say problems were known

(Matthew J. Lee/globe staff)
By James Vaznis and Andrea Estes
Globe Staff / August 2, 2012
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Rodney Peterson, the Boston school headmaster allowed to keep his job after he assaulted his wife, was chronically absent from work and struggled with personal bankruptcy for much of his career here, raising questions among his former staff about why Superintendent Carol R. Johnson spoke highly of him as recently as last month.

Johnson, who has apologized for not placing Peterson on administrative leave after his assault arrest in June 2011, repeatedly championed Peterson during his three-year tenure in Boston, creating a $126,000 a year job for him in 2011, describing him as “among our most outstanding school leaders” in a letter to the judge who sentenced him last August, and recently giving him a reference for a new job in Memphis.

Now, Johnson has launched an investigation into whether Peterson abused the School Department’s sick time policy while in Boston. A Globe review of payroll records showed that he had missed more than 20 percent of the last school year at the O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science and he may have been marked present other days when he was not. Peterson was reported at work even on the day he was arraigned on domestic violence charges and then sent back to jail.

“It’s not clear to me how a school leader could be absent that amount of time,” Johnson said in an interview, saying that she had no idea about the attendance problem until June. “It’s simply not acceptable, and it’s simply not acceptable I was not aware of it.”

But many teachers and staff at the O’Bryant, one of Boston’s exam schools, said Peterson’s persistent absenteeism was well known, estimating that he was away from the school half the time and rarely took part in basic functions such as making announcements over the public address system or greeting students as they arrived each morning. Teachers said he alternately claimed he was sick or a relative was sick or he was working from home.

“It was a running joke at the school,” said one teacher, who asked not to be named out of fear of retaliation. “He was never present. Everyone would shrug their shoulders . . . You’d hear in the main office that they tried to get in touch with him’’ and he would not “return calls or e-mails.”

Teachers who worked with Peterson at the now-closed Odyssey School in South Boston said he was frequently absent there, too, though the official payroll record compiled by a subordinate showed he was out only 13 days for medical or personal reasons in two years as headmaster.

Peterson, who resigned in June to take a job in Memphis, also had a troubling financial background for a public official overseeing a budget of more than $7 million. Peterson filed for bankruptcy in 2007 after accumulating $180,000 in debt — and reporting only $80 in his checking account — forcing him to surrender his 2002 Mercedes S430 and to permit the court to take money directly from his school paycheck to pay his debts.

Johnson said she did not know Peterson was in bankruptcy, noting the School Department does not check for bankruptcy filings when probing the background of new employees.

However, she said she plans to explore adding such a search for employees who have financial oversight.

Even now, Johnson defended her decision to hire him in 2009 in a last-ditch attempt to turn around the academically struggling Odyssey High School and two years later to make him co-headmaster at the O’Bryant in Roxbury.

“I am deeply troubled and upset with [Peterson] about his behavior through this whole thing, but it was not that he was incompetent,” said Johnson, noting that Peterson has a doctorate, which exceeds the requirements for a headmaster.

And Johnson bristled at the suggestion by some that she hired Peterson in part due to the influence of her assistant chief academic officer at the time, Shonda Huery, who was dating him.

Both Peterson and Huery had worked in Memphis, where Huery began her career as an intern to Johnson, who was Memphis’s superintendent from 2003 to 2007.

Johnson confirmed that Huery recommended Peterson, but said she did not know the two were romantically involved until much later.

She also said she did not know Peterson personally during the years they both worked in Memphis.

“His hiring was based on his experience and credentials,” Johnson said.

But Johnson’s critics said they are alarmed the superintendent did not know more about the track record of one of her exam school headmasters, especially since she was praising his skills.

“There is something seriously wrong with the leadership of the school system when no one knows whether or not a principal is showing up for work,” said John Connolly, chairman of the City Council’s education subcommittee, who has called for Johnson’s ouster.

“We have a broken culture’’ at School Department headquarters, “that fails to recognize principals for their successes or hold principals accountable who aren’t getting the job done,” Connolly said.

The Rev. Gregory Groover, chairman of the Boston School Committee, said he too was shocked by Peterson’s high absenteeism, but he expressed optimism that Johnson was taking appropriate actions.

“I think the superintendent is doing the right thing in conducting the investigation and reviewing our policies and procedures so this type of incident will not repeat itself.” said Groover.

Peterson did not return several calls seeking comment on his Boston career.

One thing is clear, however: Peterson got a career break when Johnson hired him to run the tiny Odyssey School, his first headmaster job.

Two years earlier, when he filed for bankruptcy, Peterson was making less than $50,000 a year as an “instructional facilitator” in Memphis. At Odyssey, he made more than $100,000 annually.

Peterson’s life was looking up in other ways, too. After the relationship with Huery ended, he married another woman in 2010, Memphis TV anchor Dee Griffin, and she became pregnant with their first child.

And when Odyssey closed in 2011, Johnson was impressed enough to promote him to a newly created second headmaster’s position at O’Bryant, boosting Peterson’s pay to $126,000 a year.

But even before Peterson could start his new job, he was arrested for allegedly punching and choking Griffin weeks after she had given birth to their son. In August, Peterson admitted to sufficient facts for a guilty plea and was sentenced to a year’s probation and ordered to attend a batterer’s program. At the hearing, Peterson’s lawyer gave the judge Johnson’s letter describing him as a rising star who “worked tirelessly to develop relationships with students, staff, and families.”

A few months later, records showed, Peterson began to miss work, racking up 42 official sick days and three personal days, including a monthlong stretch in the winter where he took sick days every day except for the paid February vacation week. Even on the day he resigned from school, June 8, Peterson took a sick day.

Teachers heard that Peterson’s son in Memphis was sick, and he even thanked them at one staff meeting for being “prayer warriors.”

But they questioned whether illnesses were the only cause of the absences, noting that Peterson was absent on many more days than the 20 percent reflected in the official record. School officials confirmed reports that Peterson did not sign the daily attendance sheet used for calculating payroll, making his official record suspect.

During the school year, Peterson began looking for another job, applying for a middle school principal’s position in Memphis that was publicly posted in March. With a favorable recommendation from Johnson, Peterson was officially offered the position on April 20.

Boston school officials now said that Peterson may have violated school attendance policies, which require a headmaster to file for family leave if a medical condition requires being out for more than five days.

Johnson notifed Peterson of the investigation into his payroll records last week, asking him to submit any documents to verify a medical condition. She also warned him that the School Department may seek reimbursements from him for any “overpayment and/or misuse of sick time,” according to a copy of the July 24 letter.

Johnson said the investigation could lead to changes in how headmasters are overseen. She noted that the department sends monthly reports to headmasters and principals alerting them of any employee with high absences, but that the department does not produce any such reports on the attendance of headmasters.

“We are reviewing every possible process in place,” said Johnson. “Most of our principals take time seriously and are in their buildings, and we are sensitive to pull them out even for professional development.”

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Andrea Estes can be reached at estes@globe.com.

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