Six months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans are understandably frustrated with their government officials. One might expect discontent to center around the head of the power company who oversaw months of blackouts or the governor who awarded hundreds of millions of dollars in private contracts with little or no oversight. But instead it is the secretary of the department of education, Philadelphia-native Julia Keleher, who has become the focus of people’s anger. In the past few weeks, Puerto Ricans have been calling for her resignation, making her the object of a viral hashtag campaign, #JuliaGoHome. On Monday, the school system was paralyzed by a strike as thousands of teachers protested the education-reform bill her office has spearheaded.
For observers from the 50 states, it might come as a surprise that Puerto Rico’s secretary of education hails from Philadelphia. Indeed, it is the first time a non–Puerto Rican has held the job since the colonial appointees in the period after the US took possession of the island in 1898. But in the four years leading up to her appointment, Keleher’s education consultancy firm, Keleher & Associates, had been awarded almost $1 million in contracts to “design and implement education reform initiatives” in Puerto Rico. The results of those efforts were never described to the public, but when Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares tapped Keleher for the position in January 2017, the selection was initially met with some guarded optimism. Some hoped that a non–Puerto Rican would be able to rise above local politics, end corruption, and lead the agency with professionalism and expertise.
From the beginning, many critics expressed concerns about her sizable salary, which at $250,000 is more than 10 times the average salary of a teacher in Puerto Rico. In an island beset by an unpayable debt and austerity measures, Keleher has managed to secure an income that is more than double that of her predecessors and over three times that of Rosselló, the governor that appointed her. It’s even 25 percent greater than that of Betsy DeVos, the secretary of the US Department of Education, and larger than that of 95 percent of education leaders around the world.
As secretary, her salary is capped by law, so in order for Keleher to receive this level of compensation, she was given additional contracts that established her as an adviser to her own agency. These contracts were facilitated through the Fiscal Agency and Financial Advisory Authority (AAFAF), the agency created in 2016 to manage the island’s fiscal crisis and implement austerity measures. As with other controversial appointments, such as that of the fiscal-board director Natalie Jaresko, the exorbitant salaries are rationalized as necessary to recruit the kind of talent needed to resolve the island’s financial crisis.