PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The commission tasked with proposing changes to Providence’s city charter voted Monday night to recommend a new hybrid School Board structure that would combine both elected and appointed seats.
The plan — an amended version of the elected School Board proposal put forth in June — was one of several recommendations approved by the Charter Review Commission on Monday. All of them would need voter approval before becoming reality.
But first the proposed charter changes go to the full City Council, which will determine the final language to be placed on the ballot this November. The council process is expected to take place quickly in order to meet an August deadline for the ballot questions.
The new School Board plan would create a new 10-member board with five elected members and five appointed by the mayor. Each of the elected members would come from one of five new regions created for purposes of this election. (The regions use the new city ward boundaries; each School Board district contains three wards.)
The first nonpartisan election for School Board would be held in 2024.
The existing nine-member appointed School Board is currently powerless due to the state takeover of the Providence schools, a situation which would not change immediately even if this charter amendment is approved. But the new board members elected in 2024 could potentially be the ones who would oversee the process of returning control of the school district to the city.
The charter commission had originally discussed creating an entirely elected School Board, with two members from each of the five regions. But several members recommended the hybrid approach, expressing concern that it could eliminate subject-matter experts from being on the board.
Mayor Jorge Elorza also opposed the creation of an elected board. Tuesday morning his office said his stance has not changed when it comes to the new hybrid model.
“The proposal to move to a fully elected or hybrid school board is born out of a deep frustration with our public schools and the feeling that something dramatic needs to be done to turn things around,” spokesperson Theresa Agonia said. “However, the mayor believes that inserting even more politics into public schools is a terrible idea.”
The current School Board president Kinzel Thomas spoke against the proposal prior to the vote, arguing the change should wait until after the state takeover ends.
“My suggestion is we hold off on this process,” Thomas said. “Allow the school department to return to the city.”
“This is ill-timed,” echoed Diagneris Garcia, another School Board member who attended the meeting. “We are the most diverse board in the entire state. My fear is when you implement an elected board, you are going to limit representation.”
Council President John Igliozzi, a proponent of the elected School Board plan, said the goal of the five districts is to spread out representation throughout the city, ensuring that the elected board members don’t all come from the wealthier parts of the city where they may be able to raise more money for the race.
“Our school system is in trouble,” Igliozzi said. “We haven’t seen a change.”
He argued the voters should get to decide.
“I’m not in fear of the people of Providence saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” he said.
The proposal voted on Monday would not have any term limits for the board members, unlike other elected positions in Providence. The elected terms would last four years, while the appointed terms would last three years. (The first appointed members would have different-length terms in order to stagger the appointments.)
The new School Board would continue to have no taxing authority.
The proposal on school governance was just one of several charter changes the commission approved or rejected Monday night.
The panel opted to recommend changes to the way they remove officials, a decision prompted by the ouster of former City Clerk Shawn Selleck.
The proposed charter change would require a simple majority of the City Council, rather than a two-thirds vote, to remove an appointed official who was installed by the council.
Another proposal would require department directors to be re-confirmed by the council every four years at a start of a mayor’s term, even if an incumbent mayor is re-elected. The proposal was prompted in part by council members who have asked that Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré be brought to the council for re-appointment, as he was first confirmed by the council more than a decade ago.
The commission rejected a proposal that would have eliminated the charter’s requirement that public meetings be posted in a “newspaper of general circulation,” which would have been a blow to The Providence Journal, where the city pays to place the meeting notices.
Instead, the commission recommended the City Council seek to expand where they post meeting notices in the digital age.
Another proposed charter change approved by the panel would raise the threshold for contracts to be brought before the Board of Contract and Supply from $5,000 to $15,000, and up to $35,000 for construction contracts.
The change, if approved by voters, would mean purchases by the city below that amount would not need to be considered by that public board.
Supporters of the proposal, including commissioner Ellen Cynar, a former city department director, said the existing process is extremely cumbersome and outdated. But Igliozzi abstained from the vote, expressing concern about mayoral administrations skirting purchasing rules.
Cynar and commissioner Tiana Ochoa both voted against the School Board proposal, arguing the process was rushed, with a “lack of community engagement.”
But commissioner Bryan Principe said he felt there was a “vibrant and vigorous conversation,” and as a parent he would want the choice of electing the board members.
Several other charter changes were also recommended, including a proposal to make the charter gender-neutral, for example by replacing the word “chairman” with “chair” throughout.
A final written version of the commission’s recommendations was not yet available at Monday’s meeting, as the panel made a series of floor amendments before passage.
Igliozzi said he may call for a special City Council meeting later this week to receive the recommend charter changes and schedule a public hearing to take feedback before the ballot questions are finalized.