PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — A key panel approved all four of Mayor Brett Smiley’s appointments to the Providence School Board on Tuesday, a win for the new mayor on one of his first actions while in office.
In its first meeting of the new term, the City Council Finance Committee voted unanimously to approve Toni Akin, George Matouk, Carolina Roberts-Santana and Erlin Rogel to the School Board after questioning each candidate.
The panel separately elected Councilwoman Helen Anthony, D-Ward 2, to chair the powerful Finance Committee and Councilman Juan Pichardo, D-Ward 9, as vice-chair.
The School Board appointments now go to the full City Council for approval.
If confirmed, the new members will replace Elizabeth Goldberg, Diagneris Garcia, Kinzel Thomas and Jesus Nuñez on the board.
Thomas, the board president, is leaving at the end of January when his term expires, while Goldberg and Garcia resigned their seats before their terms were up. Nuñez had applied to be reappointed to the board when his term expires later this month, but was not selected by Smiley to serve a new term.
Roberts-Santana, a program director at Women & Infants Hospital and the only nominee who is a current public school parent, told the committee she hopes to be the voice of fellow parents on the board. She said her two sons, who have autism and dyslexia respectively, currently attend Hope Academy – a public charter — but will attend Providence Public Schools for high school.
“I’m here because I’m terrified,” Roberts-Santana told the committee. “I’m here because I need to be.”
Roberts-Santana’s term will only be one year if confirmed, because she’s being appointed to finish out a resigning member’s term, while Rogel, Matouk and Akin are being appointed for three years.
“I would’ve loved to see you in one of the spots that lasts three years,” remarked Councilwoman Sue Anderbois, D-Ward 3, noting that Roberts-Santana would be one of only two women on the board.
Rogel has the most extensive experience inside the school district among the four candidates, having attended Providence public schools, taught in the school system and recently served as interim chief of staff to Superintendent Javier Montañez. Rogel is also the former chief of staff to the City Council.
He currently works as a senior advisor to Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos. In response to a question from Councilman Miguel Sanchez, D-Ward 6, Rogel said he has no education work in his portfolio at his state job.
“I just want to make it clear that the lieutenant governor’s office is a constitutionally separate office,” Rogel said. (Gov. Dan McKee’s administration currently controls the Providence public schools.)
Matouk, CEO of Fall River-based linen company Matouk & Co., is also on the board of the private Gordon School in East Providence, where his children attended school before going to Moses Brown, a private high school in Providence. He said he has volunteered in the Providence public schools and noted that his company donated thousands of cloth face masks for the district when it reopened during the pandemic in 2020.
Akin, currently a fiscal specialist in the Norfolk County Treasurer’s office in Massachusetts, acknowledged having little direct experience with the Providence Public School system. But she said she has lived in the city for 23 years and would prioritize ensuring the responsible spending of the school district’s money, including American Rescue Plan Act funds.
The new appointments come at a time of transition for the School Board, which currently lacks any power over the schools due to the state takeover. But the takeover could come to an end around the same time the School Board will have its first-ever public election of new members.
Providence voters in November approved changing the School Board to be half-elected, half-appointed, a change from the current model of nine appointed members. Voters will select the five elected members for the first time in 2024.
Smiley has said he is operating under the assumption that the city will regain control of its schools when the first term of the state takeover ends at the end of 2024.