PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Mayor Jorge Elorza took aim at Gov. Dan McKee on Wednesday, claiming the governor was “throwing me and the city under the bus” over plans to combine two Providence elementary schools into one building and bring in a charter school to use the other.
Elorza quietly signed a deal last week with charter network Achievement First to utilize the Charles M. Fortes Elementary School building for at least a year, as the charter expands its seats amid high demand.
The move apparently blindsided parents, students and teachers at Fortes, who had not been told they were moving over to the Alfred Lima Elementary building in September.
District leaders had previously announced that the two schools — which are physically connected in one complex on Daboll Street — were combining under one principal, but not that everyone was physically moving.
In sharing the complex with Achievement First, the newly combined Fortes-Lima school will also share certain common spaces with the charter students.
While the state controls the Providence school system, the city remains in charge of the physical school buildings, which is why the agreement was signed with Elorza.
The governor expressed opposition to the plan on Tuesday.
“The concept was shared with me a few months back and I was not very supportive of it,” McKee told reporters at his regular news conference.
He said his hometown of Cumberland, where he used to be mayor, had once considered having traditional public schools and charters share space, but determined “the timing wasn’t right.”
“I don’t think it’s necessarily right now,” he added.
The comments frustrated Elorza, who held his own news conference Wednesday insisting that the deal with Achievement First had been the state’s plan all along.
“It’s disingenuous for them to suggest that they had nothing to do with it, or that the governor was against it from the beginning,” Elorza said.
He acknowledged that he wasn’t sure if the R.I. Department of Education had proposed the arrangement under former Gov. Gina Raimondo’s administration, or after McKee became governor in early March.
McKee’s press secretary Alana O’Hare said the plan was initiated under the Raimondo administration.
Either way, Elorza said McKee had known about the plans and “did nothing about it for several months.”
The mayor is expected to challenge McKee in the Democratic primary for governor next year.
McKee’s office also confirmed Wednesday night that Cassidy McKee — listed on the Achievement First agreement as the director of special projects, team facilities and finance — is the governor’s niece.
Asked whether the governor should recuse himself under the Code of Ethics or be weighing in on a deal that his niece was involved in, O’Hare said McKee was “not a participant in the licensing agreement signed by Achievement First and the City of Providence.”
Elorza, who is the chair of the Achievement First board under what’s called a mayoral academy model, said he fully supports the new arrangement at Fortes. He accused McKee of trying to “curry favor” with the Providence Teachers Union by suddenly opposing the decision to move the charter into the school.
“I can’t see any reason why he would get involved other than to do the bidding of the Providence Teachers Union,” Elorza said.
He acknowledged that his role as chair of the board could be a conflict of interest with his role in signing the agreement with Achievement First.
“It does indeed present a conflict,” Elorza said. “That was how it was designed.”
McKee, a longtime charter school supporter who launched mayoral academies in the Blackstone Valley, has been overseeing contract negotiations between the state and the Providence Teachers Union. Those had been contentious but have cooled off in recent weeks after Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green stopped attending the meetings.
“Negotiations are heading in the right direction,” McKee said Tuesday.
Union president Maribeth Calabro agreed, telling 12 News the negotiations are moving along at a “rapid, professional pace.” She denied ever speaking to McKee about the Achievement First deal, which she vociferously opposes.
“This is a political tactic by the mayor in trying to stay relevant in a gubernatorial race that he has no chance of winning,” she said.
The union’s opposition to Achievement First moving in is not about the fact that the school is non-union, she said, but because students would be “squeezed” into the Lima building and forced to share art, music, and lunch spaces with the new students.
“There have been clandestine conversations happening about this for months,” Calabro said. “Parents weren’t informed. Teachers weren’t informed.”
She said teachers were told to pack up their classrooms on Friday because “they were getting a makeover and painting their rooms” — when in reality they would never be returning to their classrooms at Fortes.
Calabro said the decision was made “with no forethought on the impact that it would have coming back from COVID and the social-emotional impact it would have it on the students, not to mention the teachers.”
McKee’s office responded to Elorza’s accusations in a statement to 12 News Thursday morning.
“The mayor needs to be reminded that nothing good happens without hard work and communication with everyone involved, including the teachers union — something the mayor failed to understand when he managed the Providence schools,” O’Hare said in an email. “The governor’s top priority is looking out for the best interest of students, as is his responsibility to do so. The administration will continue to work with all parties involved, including the city of Providence, to find an amicable solution to accommodate all of the students for the new school year and beyond.”
The R.I Department of Education also did not respond to questions about why no public input was taken prior to the deal being signed.
In the letter sent to families on Wednesday, Fortes-Lima principal Tonya Costa said kindergarten through 5th grade students from both schools would now be located in the Lima building in September, while pre-K students would remain in the Fortes building, sharing with Achievement First.
“Both the Fortes and Lima buildings have been identified by the district’s operations team as being
underutilized, and we have enough space to accommodate our entire learning community in the Lima
building,” Costa wrote.
“I want to assure you that this facility shift will not impact our learning community in any way beyond
giving our K-5 students the opportunity to all learn in the same building,” she added.
A Zoom town hall for families is planned for Thursday.
The deal signed by Elorza and Achievement First — referred to as a “licensing agreement” that doesn’t give the charter the same tenants rights as a lease — allows the school to operate in the Fortes building from July 1 of this year to June 30 of next year, though Elorza said he was interested in signing a longer-term lease.
Achievement First will pay $1 to occupy the space, according to the deal, but will also pay for all maintenance and repairs and 35% of utilities, with a cap of $400,000 paid to the city over the year.
The city will remain responsible for capital improvements including a scheduled roof replacement this summer.