PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Staffers at two Providence elementary schools have received emails inviting them to a meeting after school on Tuesday to discuss their school facilities, after the state-run school district announced Sunday that two school buildings would be closing.
The emails come more than 24 hours after the school district confirmed the looming closures. Yet district officials have declined to answer any further questions about the plan on Sunday or Monday, including naming the school buildings.
Maribeth Calabro, the Providence Teachers Union president, said Monday night teachers at Carl G. Lauro Elementary School and Alan Shawn Feinstein at Broad Street Elementary received the staff meeting emails.
“You are invited to a staff meeting tomorrow immediately after school to discuss important upcoming facilities plans for Providence Public Schools,” the email from Lauro Elementary principal Suzanne Madden said. “We apologize for the short notice — our original communications plan was interrupted by a public leak of information.”
The state-controlled school district confirmed the plan to close two unidentified schools on Sunday afternoon, after the Providence Teachers Union posted on Twitter that the district was planning to do so.
“Maribeth Calabro and Jeremy Sencer have once again shown their true colors by running to social media to advance their own agenda of [sowing] turmoil, rather than addressing the longstanding critical issue of school facilities with district leaders like true thought partners,” spokesperson Nick Domings said in a statement Sunday, slamming the union’s president and vice president.
But he also confirmed that their Twitter speculation was true.
“Yes, Providence Public Schools and RIDE are proud to say that next year, two crumbling schools will finally be taken offline as part of a comprehensive plan to dramatically increase the number of students and educators in modern facilities,” Domings said.
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District leaders would not confirm which buildings were closing, where students and teachers will go, or the timing of the closures.
“Until educators and families are informed, we will not be commenting any further on specifics,” said Victor Morente, a spokesperson for the R.I. Department of Education. He did not say when the teachers and families at the affected schools would be notified.
Morente and Domings also didn’t answer questions about why the proposal has not been brought before the Providence School Board or otherwise proposed publicly before decisions were made about closures.
School Board President Kinzel Thomas told 12 News he has not been notified of the school building closures, and plans to ask school district officials about it at Wednesday’s regularly scheduled board meeting.
“The School Board was not a part of any discussions about closing school buildings,” Thomas said. “They haven’t shared anything with me yet.”
Thomas pointed to an existing School Board policy that says when a superintendent recommends a school for closure, the board “shall schedule a hearing” on the recommendation and invite affected community members to speak before a decision is made.
“I understand that the school buildings have been a focal point of the state intervention,” Thomas said. “You certainly want to … make sure that you have input from the various stakeholders.”
The Department of Education has previously argued School Board policies do not apply to Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who took control of the entire school system in 2019 under a state law called the Crowley Act.
“I think before any school is mentioned, a process needs to be created with the community and the community needs to be involved with decision making in this district,” said Ty’Relle Stephens, an outspoken member of the School Board who has been critical of district leadership.
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Mark Santow, another board member, called the school district’s statement about the teachers union “unprofessional.”
“Imagine being asked to be transparent about something as vital to this community as closing schools — even if closing for good reasons — and getting this response. Grow up,” Santow tweeted.
Calabro, the union president, said she first heard about the potential school closures from teachers at the affected schools on Friday.
“The reason why we went to Twitter is because they don’t respond to us,” Calabro said, referring to the district administrators. “Our concern is about communication and transparency.”
Calabro noted that the union’s social media posts prompted the district to acknowledge their plans.
“I was right, they are closing schools,” Calabro said. “We were vilified in an email for having put it out there that schools may be closing, and it’s a fact.”
Calabro said the situation is reminiscent of when the district closed Charles M. Fortes Elementary School last year. That school was merged with the adjoining Alfred Lima Elementary School in order to lease the Fortes building to Achievement First, a charter school.
The plans were kept secret until after the lease was signed, and teachers said they were blindsided by the news. Some reported having their belongings piled into a gymnasium so the charter school could move in before the new school year.
“There’s trauma here that exists among our teachers,” Calabro said. She noted that Mayor Jorge Elorza has floated the idea of an all-charter district, eliciting further concerns from teachers that the school closures could make way for more charter schools.
Elorza’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the school building closures. The city still owns and controls the buildings, even though the school district is controlled by the state.
In his statement Sunday, Domings said no teachers would face layoffs, something Calabro said she isn’t concerned about due to the large number of teacher vacancies in the system. But she said teachers do want to know if they’re being displaced from their job to another position, and parents need to know where their children will be going to school, which could include changes to their transportation plans, or start and end times.
Providence’s school buildings have been a big focus of the state takeover, with several major school construction projects already underway. The Spaziano Elementary School Annex is being demolished and rebuilt into a brand new school, and another new school is slated to open in 2025 at the former St. Joseph’s Hospital building on Peace Street.
The district is also renovating the previously shuttered Windmill Street School into swing space for students to learn in while their schools are being renovated. The school was recently renamed the Narducci Learning Center.
The previously released construction plans have not included school closures, though Infante-Green has said on multiple occasions that building closures were possible.
“It is disgraceful that it has taken this long to get our students out of buildings that were constructed over 100 years ago when Grover Cleveland was in office,” Domings said Sunday. “Out of respect for PTU members and families in the affected buildings, as well as the School Board, the plan was – and still is – to provide full details to these groups first and release information to the larger community shortly afterward.”
He pointed to the $125 million bond approved by Providence voters in November, which will be used for school construction projects.
Calabro said she’s glad that the schools are being upgraded, but her concerns lie in the process of informing the community and seeking input from those affected.
“We’re glad that schools are getting the repairs that they need,” Calabro said. “We were ringing this bell and sounding the alarm on the disrepair of Providence public schools pre-takeover.”