Complicated Crusader to Accused Federal Conspirator: Ex-Puerto Rico Education Secretary Julia Keleher’s ‘Surreal’ Journey

By Mark Keierleber

Julia Keleher (left), then-education secretary in Puerto Rico, then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló (center), and U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos visit a storm-battered school in San Juan after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September 2017. (Puerto Rico Department of Education)

‘Big data’ whiz

As Puerto Rico’s education secretary, Keleher portrayed herself as on a mission to rescue the island’s moribund school system. In 2017, she seized on Hurricane Maria’s devastation to close hundreds of schools and embrace new charters and private school vouchers. Amid the ensuing protests and online ridicule, Keleher didn’t back down.

Julia Keleher, then-education secretary in Puerto Rico, shows students new coloring books to raise awareness on how to avoid influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided 100,000 of the coloring books to students in Puerto Rico. (FEMA/Eliezer Hernandez)

An ‘internal civil war’

The atmosphere in Puerto Rico’s education department at the time resembled an “internal civil war,” according to a former Obama administration political appointee who worked with Keleher at the federal agency. Puerto Rico’s department lacked nonpartisan civil servants and was dominated by political cronies, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the criminal charges against Keleher. Turnover was rampant, and the department frequently lacked critical expertise to help itself.

“You’d look at things and say, ‘Well, I guess there were people who are up to no good and taking inappropriate steps and actions and maybe even personally benefiting.’ And then, in other cases, you thought it was just complete incompetence.”

Forte, the education consultant, said she met Keleher when the two worked to resolve those issues. Forte was helping Puerto Rico meet Title I requirements around standards and assessments, and Keleher was on a team focusing on a host of issues, including financial management. In those interactions, and in subsequent meetings when the two lived in Washington, Forte found Keleher to be “one of the most intense people I’ve known professionally.”

“If you take somebody inside of the system, it’s kind of like The Matrix — it already owns you.”

On top of that, she told the Yale crowd, she found — and fought — a pervasive system of political favoritism, earning her a slew of enemies.

‘Individual A’

As Colón & Ponce worked to secure an education department contract, prosecutors allege, an official at the consulting firm Keleher founded in Washington helped craft the proposal. The firm, Keleher & Associates, had multiple contracts — totaling nearly $1 million — with the department dating to 2013, pertaining to issues ranging from flexibility waivers on federal requirements to accountability under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary
Excerpt from indictment against Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s former education secretary

Hurricane’s impact

In September 2017, Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, leaving Puerto Ricans without power for months in what would become the worst blackout in U.S. history. More than a million people were left without clean water. Neighborhoods were ransacked. Thousands of people were killed.

View of a damaged classroom at a school in Toa Baja on Oct. 2, 2017. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, much of the island was left without electricity, fresh water or sufficient food. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)
Puerto Rican residents protest pension cuts, school closures and slow hurricane recovery efforts on May 2, 2018, in San Juan. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images)

‘It seems impossible’

In April, as Keleher spoke to the Yale education management conference, she noted some key lessons from her tenure as secretary, including “being comfortable with ambiguity, having 65 percent of all the information you need.”

“There was nothing, absolutely nothing, that was going to deter me from accomplishing what I set out to do.”

“I’m retired, not dead,” said Shields-Russell, who worked with Keleher in Delaware, when asked if she’d heard of the indictment. For Shields-Russell, and others, the news came as a surprise. “I never saw or would suspect her of being dishonest,” she said. However, she added, “I would find it very difficult to believe she was the victim of someone else because she is so thorough.”

Protesters demonstrate near a police barricade on July 24, in San Juan. Protesters demanded that Ricardo Rosselló step down as governor after a group chat was exposed that included misogynistic and homophobic comments allegedly made between Rosselló and top aides. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The 74 is a non-profit, non-partisan news site covering education in America.

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