Concerns raised about state takeover of Providence schools

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City Councilwoman Helen Anthony, D-Ward 2.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An East Side city councilor on Thursday questioned the upcoming state takeover of Providence schools in a newsletter to her constituents, days ahead of a the deadline to submit opposition to the plan.

Councilwoman Helen Anthony, D-Ward 2, told WPRI 12 she has no plans to oppose the order by R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to take control of the schools, but her comments represent some of the strongest public criticisms of the proposal by a city leader so far.

In the newsletter, Anthony said she isn’t sure whether Infante-Green’s order meets the requirements in the 1997 Crowley Act, which gives the state power to reconstitute schools.

That law requires that the state first provide three years of progressive intervention in the school district prior to taking full control.

“The support and intervention provided to Providence by RIDE has been neither comprehensive nor consistent,” Anthony said in the newsletter. She pointed out that three different standardized tests have been used in the past several years to assess student learning.

She also expressed concerns about the “broad authority” the order gives to Infante-Green, without “any way to hold her accountable.”

“No one has held RIDE accountable for the ways in which it has failed, in the past, to support our schools,” Anthony said. “Without more specific language in the order concerning the commissioner’s accountability, I fear that pattern may continue.”

Reached by phone, Anthony said she’s not aware of any council colleagues who plan to formally object to the preliminary order to take over the schools, but said she plans to express her concerns to the commissioner.

“I am very, very supportive of a change, and I’m supportive of this commissioner,” Anthony told WPRI 12.

Meg Geoghegan, a spokesperson for Infante-Green, said councilors “have an obligation to represent the concerns of their constituents, and the commissioner remains prepared to answer questions raised throughout this process.”

The City Council is among four parties that can formally object to Infante-Green’s order, along with the Providence School Board, the superintendent and the mayor. Objections are due next Wednesday, and the show cause hearing is scheduled for Sept. 13.

The Providence School Board voted Wednesday night to submit a letter of non-opposition, and both Mayor Jorge Elorza and interim Superintendent Frances Gallo have also said they have no plans to object. The School Board does plan to attend the show cause hearing to present recommendations to the commissioner.

The legal process underway is fairly uncharted territory, with the Crowley Act previously being used to take over a single school — Providence’s Hope High in the mid-2000s — but never before an entire school district.

Infante-Green’s order says she will “exercise all powers and authorities currently exercised by the Providence School Board and superintendent, as well as all powers and authorities currently exercised by the mayor of Providence and the Providence City Council as it pertains to PPSD and its schools.”

Timothy Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, on Thursday asked whether the Crowley Act is even constitutional, suggesting that it could violate a provision in Article XIII that says only city voters can give the state “the power to act in relation to the property, affairs and government of a particular city or town.”

Asked about Duffy’s question, Geoghegan said, “The commissioner is obligated to follow the laws of the state of Rhode Island, and that is her focus on this and all of the issues she handles at RIDE. She does not interpret law and it would be inappropriate for her to do so.”

Billy Kepner, a spokesperson for the council, said Council President Sabina Matos and her leadership team have no plans to formally object to the order. He said the council has asked the city’s legal department whether individual councilors can object, or if any objection has to come from the council as a whole.

Matos has previously said she is concerned about the state having control of half the city’s budget, but otherwise is “committed and supportive” of the process.

Councilman David Salvatore, D-Ward 14, said he feels the order goes “above and beyond” what’s in the Crowley Act, but also said he does not plan to file an objection.

He said he hopes to get answers to some questions he has about the order, including whether taking “all powers and authorities” of the City Council related to schools could give the commissioner taxing authority.

Geoghegan said that is not the case. While the commissioner will have control over the school budget, the Crowley Act does not give her the power to levy taxes, she said.

Salvatore also agreed with Anthony’s concern that the three years of intervention required by the Crowley Act had not yet taken place, since the law was not invoked three years ago.

In response, Geoghegan said the initial order “explains in great detail the many ways we have worked with district leadership over the years to help them improve student performance in Providence. The statute requires three years of progressive intervention, but it does not require any advance warning, so to speak, that Crowley will be invoked.”

Elorza has endorsed the plan to take over the district, saying the state will have more tools and authority to make change under the Crowley Act than the city currently does.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the deadline to object to Commissioner Infante-Green’s order is Wednesday, Sept. 4.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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