Layoffs, furloughs and salary freezes on the table for uncertain Providence schools budget

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Providence Public School District is considering job cuts, furloughs and salary freezes on its list of potential cost-cutting measures if funding falls short this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Superintendent Harrison Peters and his staff on Monday night laid out the possible scenarios for the district’s budget proposal, which has not yet been released, including best- and worst-case scenarios depending on how city and state aid shakes out.

The budget plan will be the first for the district since it came under state control last fall.

The best-case scenario includes a $15.7 million increase in revenue to the district, which would include Gov. Gina Raimondo’s pre-pandemic budgeted state aid, plus the appropriation from the city of Providence. The additional money would be used to address a variety of issues highlighted in last year’s Johns Hopkins report, from recruiting more teachers to increasing technology and facilities repairs.

But with state revenue forecasts slashed by $800 million, that state aid is uncertain, as is the city’s appropriation; the Crowley Act that allowed the state to take control of Providence schools last year requires the city to increase its funding to the schools at the same level as the state does, meaning the city could decrease funding if the state does.

If the expected revenue doesn’t come in, Chief Operating Officer Zack Scott said the district would need to close a $3.6 million budget hole using a possible combination of personnel reductions, a non-union salary freeze, and five days of employee furloughs.

The Providence Public School Department’s possible cost-cutting plan if state and city revenues do not flow to the district as planned.

District spokesperson Laura Hart said the personnel reductions and school schedule consolidations referenced in the plan could potentially include teacher layoffs or transfers into other vacant positions.

That worst-case scenario is separate from Peters’ existing plans to reorganize the district’s central office, which could also include layoffs and transfers to other positions within the district. Hart said there is no number yet on how many positions will be eliminated as a result of that reorganization.

A date has not been set for when the proposed budget for the new fiscal year, which starts July 1, will actually be released.

State Rep. Marcia Ranglin-Vassell, a Providence teacher herself, said the scenario would be “devastating” for students who need more supports.

“As a teacher who just wrapped up three hours of teaching in Providence schools I can say with credibility that our schools cannot sustain any cuts,” Ranglin-Vassell said on Twitter. “We needed more state funding before COVID-19.”

While Scott said the district is expected to get roughly $14 million in relief funds from the federal CARES Act, he told the Providence School Board’s finance committee that the money is expected to be used for specific new expenses related to the COVID-19 crisis including distance learning technology and extra cleaning and personal protective equipment for when school resumes in the fall.

Whether or not school buildings will indeed open as normal in the fall is still an open question, Peters acknowledged, with multiple scenarios for the school year currently being considered.

The options include a “modified reopening” of the school buildings, a continuation of distance learning or a hybrid of the two.

Peters said the options for in-person learning include bringing all students back or just bringing elementary school students back. He noted that social distancing might be difficult for younger students, so the district is exploring splitting classes into “pods” so kids are only interacting with a small group of students.

There are even more out-of-the-box ideas being kicked around for middle and high schools, like a “seven-period year,” Peters said, which would involve students learning one subject for a set number of weeks and then moving on to the next one, rather than rotating through seven different classrooms every day.

Peters emphasized, “We just don’t know.” He also said he’s asking teachers to be flexible, as their classrooms may look different in order to follow social distancing guidelines.

“No decisions have been made at this time,” Hart said. “Our hope is to incorporate community feedback into that decision-making process.”

The state turnaround plan — the cornerstone of the state takeover — is still in the works and expected to be released in the coming weeks. R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green previously said the plan to improve the schools would be released in April, but the schedule was delayed because of the pandemic.

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

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