EDUCATOR Sandra Gonzalez has an inactive principal certificate - that means she cannot work as a principal at any public school in Pennsylvania.
Yet, 2014 payroll records at Antonia Pantoja Charter School identify her as principal, a website run by her employer lists her as principal, Gonzalez occupies the office reserved for the principal, and she takes the lead on issues concerning Pantoja at monthly principal meetings.
During interviews by phone and at the North Philadelphia school last week, more than a dozen parents, students and staff named Gonzalez when asked if they knew who the principal was.
"Sandra Gonzalez is the principal of Pantoja," said parent Maryelis Santiago, 26, whose daughter Lindsey Viera, 6, is in kindergarten. "She's very active in the school. She's good at communicating with parents and making it a welcoming environment."
Rebecca Echevarria, 31, who picked up three students from the school last week, said, Gonzalez "has been the principal for years."
After identifying Gonzalez as the principal, a school police officer led a reporter to the main office to see her. There, the reporter asked the secretary if she could speak with the principal, and the secretary summoned Gonzalez, who neither confirmed nor denied being principal that day.
Gonzalez was appointed principal in 2011, but became ineligible for the job in June 2013 after her state certificate became inactive because she failed to renew it. She recently told the Daily News that she "wasn't aware" that her credential had become inactive. She has repeatedly denied that she is Pantoja's principal.
So have officials with her employer, ASPIRA Inc. of Pennsylvania, the charter operator that runs Pantoja.
Both maintain that Gonzalez is Pantoja's director of instruction.
"If Pantoja parents ask to see the principal and have academic-related questions, they are directed to Ms. Gonzalez as the Director of Instruction," ASPIRA chief operating officer Thomas Darden wrote in an email to the Daily News.
"Since current Pantoja students and parents have always known Ms. Gonzalez as the principal of the school, out of respect they may be continuing to refer to her as 'Principal Gonzalez'," Darden said.
But state Department of Education officials aren't buying it.
"If she is performing the duties of a principal, her title is irrelevant," said Terry Barnaby, director of the Bureau of School Leadership and Teacher Quality at the Department of Education, which is responsible for certification statewide. "She needs to have a principal certificate.
"If it walks like a duck and acts like a duck, it's a duck," she added.
What's in a job title?
In September 2013, Gonzalez was ineligible to work as Pantoja's principal, but she assumed the role anyway. During that time, she signed letters and student certificates of achievement as principal, according to records released to the paper and Facebook posts. She also laid off teachers whose teaching credentials had become inactive, multiple sources told the Daily News.
The Pantoja School Board learned in July 2014 that Gonzalez lacked the proper state credentials and voted to reduce her title to director of instruction and slash her $130,559 salary by $20,000.
Two months later, in September, however, the board voted to reinstate Gonzalez's principal's salary during a closed meeting, according to board minutes. She kept the title director of instruction. No explanation was given for why the board restored Gonzalez's principal salary when she was working in a lesser position.
Darden said that when school started at Pantoja that month, Gonzalez informed staff that she was no longer the principal.
"The school also changed its letterhead in September 2014," he said, "and all school communications since that time have identified Ms. Gonzalez as the director of instruction."
Darden said Luis Garcia, the school's assistant principal - not Gonzalez - "signs all teacher evaluations and other documents that require a credentialed administrator's signature."
Gonzalez, who has a valid K-6 teaching certificate and is teaching a class at the school, told the Daily News that her job responsibilities include "coaching, observing classrooms" and data analysis. She said she doesn't evaluate staff or perform principal duties.
Still, Gonzalez attends ASPIRA's monthly principal meetings, taking the lead when Pantoja is discussed, according to sources familiar with the meetings. This week, the Pantoja page on ASPIRA's website displays Gonzalez's image and list her as principal. Yesterday, Gonzalez's Facebook page also listed her as Pantoja's principal.
And although Darden said all school communications have identified Gonzalez as director of instruction since September, the Daily News received a letter from the school, dated Nov. 7, identifying Gonzalez as principal.
When asked why she didn't act to ensure she had a valid certificate, Gonzalez said, "I wasn't aware" of the inactive credentials.
And when asked when she became aware of her certification status, Gonzalez abruptly ended the phone call. She did not respond to follow-up questions sent by email.
It's unclear why ASPIRA officials did not become aware of Gonzalez's certification issue until 2014.
But Department of Education officials said responsibility for renewing credentials falls on administrators and the schools where they work.
For schools and school districts, that means keeping track of their staff's credentials.
For principals, that means taking classes toward certification and filling out paperwork, Barnaby said.
"They have a very clear requirement that the principal is certified and [the certificate] has to be valid and active," she said.
DOE officials said not knowing isn't a valid excuse for allowing a credential to become inactive.
"There's no reason for that to happen," Barnaby said of failing to renew a principal certificate. The state DOE "provides the support [call center, help desk], and the professionals should take care of their credentials."
But there is little incentive.
Barnaby said the DOE will take action if a complaint is filed with the state. It's unknown if a complaint has been filed against Pantoja.