PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A newly released analysis of Providence’s school department budget suggests the district could be overpaying for transportation and custodial services and underfunding services like English language learning.
The $295,000 independent financial analysis, which is not an audit, was conducted by accounting firm Ernst & Young and paid for by the Partnership for Rhode Island. (The same group, a coalition of local CEOs, also paid for the Johns Hopkins University report that helped spark the state takeover of Providence schools.)
R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has said she was waiting for the analysis to come out before making certain decisions regarding the takeover, including about closing or rebuilding schools. A “turnaround plan” for the district is expected to be completed in early 2020.
Ernst & Young (EY) reviewed the city’s budget and conducted interviews, concluding that many people believe that “97% of our costs are fixed” in the schools. The authors of the analysis instead recommend “re-mapping” the entire budget, which could include cutting the budget for the district’s central office and reallocating that money to the schools.
The analysis says the schools need to double the number of teachers certified in English as a Second Language, and suggested providing incentives for general education teachers to get ESL-certified.
On school buildings, the analysis doesn’t make a specific recommendation to close schools but does say the “perceived lack of swing space” to house students during construction helps drive the decision to focus spending on maintenance and repairs, rather than new construction.
Infante-Green has said closing schools is a possibility, but has not said which ones are on the table. The former St. Joseph’s Hospital has been floated as a swing space location to temporarily hold classes while schools are under construction.
The analysis also suggests taking action on multiple city contracts related to the school department, including the custodial contract with company Aramark. Without actually naming Aramark, the analysis points out that the $18 million “outsourced custodial services contract” amounts to 64% of the maintenance and custodial spending. The report says PPSD spends about 25% more per-pupil on the custodial services compared to other districts.
Now that she’s taken state control of the district, Infante-Green has the power under the Crowley Act to unilaterally change contracts. She has not yet said if she will take action related to the teachers’ union contract or the custodial contract with Aramark.
The analysis makes only veiled reference to union contracts, writing that “PPSD should seek opportunities to reduce cost” when it comes to spending on employee benefits, which it says amount to about 50% of the spending on salaries.
The school department spends $711 per pupil on transportation, according to the analysis, which includes both city school buses (contracted with First Student) and RIPTA bus passes, which are provided for free to high school students who live more than two miles from school. In comparison, the analysis says North Providence spends $683 per student on transportation, Woonsocket spends $512, and Central Falls (a city of one square mile) spends $208.
EY argues the city’s deficit projections are too high, in part because of an expected annual increase in state funding. The Crowley Act, the law that allowed the state to take over, also requires that the city fund the schools at the same level as the previous year, but increased by the “same percentage as the state total of school district aid is increased.”
With those calculations in play, EY estimates the city will appropriate $132.6 million to the schools next year, compared to $130 million this year. (The school department receives the bulk of its funding, about $256 million, from the state.)
“We’re pleased to see that the district is in a better financial position than previous estimates,” Infante-Green said in a statement. “This analysis gives us a tool to ensure that funding is being used more efficiently and effectively in the best interest of all students.”
Eli Sherman contributed to this report.