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Newly leased office building for Providence schools raises concerns

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The state-controlled Providence Public School District has quietly leased part of an office building in an industrial zone in Providence to house dozens of staffers who were originally hired as part of a push to have fewer employees working in offices.

The previously undisclosed lease highlights the opaque nature of some of the spending decisions being made by the state-run district now that layers of public vetting and approvals by the city have been removed.

The $87,312 lease for more than 8,700 square feet of office space in a building at 100 Niantic Ave. was signed in August for one year starting Sept. 1, with an option to renew for three more years at a higher rent. The district spent $99,000 furnishing the offices, plus $11,350 on technology supplies, copy machine rentals and a refrigerator, according to spokesperson Audrey Lucas.

The building is owned by former lieutenant governor and current Superior Court Judge Richard Licht and his family members, who are in the real estate business, Licht confirmed to Target 12. His cousin Gary Licht, managing agent of JLJ Realty Company, signed the lease.

The office building is housing 50 employees of what the school system calls the elementary and secondary network, which was created during a reorganization of district staff by the state-controlled district last year, described as a “deliverable” of the state turnaround effort.

The reorganization involved eliminating dozens of jobs at the district’s central office at 797 Westminster St. and then creating new jobs in the elementary and secondary network, described at the time as “school-based staff devoted to coaching, specialized instruction, data analysis, culture and customer service.”

A news release in June 2020 said the network model would push “many supports out of central office and closer to schools, where they can have greater impact on students.”

But the network staffers are now physically located farther away from any Providence schools than central office, which is across the street from three high schools.

“The need for additional space for network staff was in part due to the hiring of additional school-based staff,” Lucas said in email to Target 12 in response to questions about the new office space. “This is temporary and the furniture and supplies will be integrated into the district when it ends.”

The district plans to use federal COVID stimulus funds from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund (ESSER II) to pay for the lease, which was put out for competitive bid back in June.

“The premise was to have everyone in schools, all hands on deck,” said Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union. “Because we’re trying to move forward and effectuate change.” She said the union was not informed about the office space leased for the network staff.

The district did not provide a list of employees working in the Niantic building, but Lucas confirmed 20 of the 50 employees had previously been working in the Lima Elementary School. That school recently merged with the attached Fortes Elementary School to form Fortes-Lima, which in turn allowed a charter school run by Achievement First to move into the Fortes side of the building.

Achievement First is paying just $1 for the year-long use of the city-owned building, plus up to $400,000 in maintenance costs as needed. The move was controversial in part because it wasn’t publicly announced, and because Fortes teachers and students weren’t notified that they would be moving into Lima.

Officials at the time said the building was underutilized, and did not mention that network staffers would be moving out to make room for the changes.

“While network staff office space was previously located within two school facilities – Fortes-Lima and the JSEC/360 complex – by nature of their jobs supporting school leaders and educators, they regularly attended meetings in other school buildings,” Lucas said. “While their office space is temporarily located at 100 Niantic Avenue, their work in PPSD schools is continuing uninterrupted.”

The Niantic Avenue lease also highlights a consequence of the state takeover of the school district. When the city controlled the school district, such a lease would have required approval from the Board of Contract and Supply and the Providence School Board, and likely the City Council, as well.

“Here’s an example of why it would be nice to have a full public vetting,” said City Councilwoman Jo-Ann Ryan, the Finance Committee chair. She said prior to the takeover, she would have sought to review the lease in her committee. “Who is leasing, what is the need, is it the most efficient utilization of those dollars?”

The state intervention removed the legal authority of all those Providence public bodies over the school district, though the Providence School Board still reviews and approves contracts greater than $200,000, according to Lucas.

But even then, the School Board’s approval is only advisory. A copy of the procurement rules that apply under the state takeover says “regardless of the School Board’s recommendation,” the contract goes to the superintendent and then Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green for approval.

The Niantic Avenue lease was also not reviewed or approved by the State Properties Committee.

The lack of review by public bodies “makes it extremely difficult for the public to be informed about how public dollars are being spent in their school system,” Ryan said.

“While the district’s contract review process under the commissioner’s order may comply with the minimum requirements of state purchasing laws, it doesn’t appear to be working in the interest of public engagement and transparency,” she added.

The previous requirement that contracts larger than $5,000 be approved by a series of city bodies was criticized in the 2019 Johns Hopkins report for creating too many layers of bureaucracy, a sentiment that was echoed by Infante-Green at the time.

“There were reasons why all of these parameters were put in place,” Calabro said. “What we’re seeing now is what happens when you pull the pin or you unplug the dam. All of these things are happening without the input of community, with the input of teachers, without the input of students or their teachers.”

The Providence schools procurement rules also say bids must be posted online publicly. The bids for this lease were not online, though the district provided copies Thursday in response to a request from Target 12.

Two bidders responded to the request for office space in June: Licht Properties and RCG Armory Pearl LLC, the latter of which offered a lower rent than Licht for three different location options ranging from $61,000 to $86,000 for the one-year lease. But two of the options would have required construction before staff could move in.

“The build out would be the tenants’ financial responsibility and delay entry into the space,” PPSD spokesperson Suzanne Ouellette said when asked why the Niantic Avenue building received the contract. “The Licht Properties space did not require the build out costs and could be used immediately.”

The Niantic Avenue lease is not the first significant building decision during the state takeover to be kept private until reporters began asking questions.

Emails obtained by Target 12 through an Access to Public Records Act request show the deal to move Achievement First into Fortes Elementary was actively kept under wraps, even after the public school district had agreed to co-locate with the charter school. (The final agreement was signed by Mayor Jorge Elorza, since the city still owns the school buildings.)

Emails between Achievement First and officials with Providence schools and the R.I. Department of Education show a press release was drafted in April 2021 but apparently never released. The news about moving the charter school into the building became public in July due to reporting by The Providence Journal.

In May, when Achievement First was already visiting the building and making plans to move in, Achievement First director of special projects Cassidy McKee — who is Gov. Dan McKee’s niece — wrote in an email to then-Chief of Staff Art Nevins that a PPSD IT professional had asked questions about which spaces the charter would be using. (Nevins no longer works for Providence schools.)

McKee said she wasn’t sure if she should tell him, due to the “sensitivity” of the information.

“Thanks for being discrete!” Nevins replied.

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

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