RI education commissioner proposes state control of Providence schools

Providence

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Calling for “drastic action,” Rhode Island’s new education commissioner is aiming to use a 1997 law to take some level of control over Providence public schools.

The decision comes about one month after the release of a damning report by Johns Hopkins on the state of the city’s schools.

Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green made the recommendation in an agenda item for the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, which is expected to vote on the proposal Tuesday.

Infante-Green proposes using authority of the 1997 Crowley Act, which gives the state power to take control of an under-performing district’s “budget, program, and/or personnel.”

The powers, according to Infante-Green’s recommendation, could include “assuming control of the District, the reconstitution of the Providence Public Schools and any other power (at law and in equity) available to the Council as may be authorized by law and as may be determined to be necessary and appropriate by the Commissioner.”

“Today marks the start of a new era for the Providence schools,” Infante-Green said in a statement. “I am making a clear recommendation to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to grant me the authority to take strong action to fundamentally transform a broken Providence Public School District.”

Around the same time the agenda item posted, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza held a news conference at Hope High School endorsing a state takeover.

“At the local level, we know we don’t have the power, the tools and the authority to bring about the transformational change that we need,” Elorza told reporters.

Elorza has lamented certain provisions of teachers union contract, which the state could potentially have more power to change.

“They have more influence over the contract then we do,” Elorza said.

He also said state control would allow qualified teachers to be hired faster and move resources around without too many “layers of bureaucracy.”

The Johns Hopkins report released in June was also critical of the teachers contract, which administrators told the researchers made it difficult to hire the best teachers and fire ones that were not performing well.

Rhode Island officials have looked at other examples of state takeovers, including in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Camden, New Jersey, where the states were able to fire under-performing teachers.

Elorza said there is still a ways to go in the planning process, which will include drafting a reconstitution order and creating a turnaround plan.

What exactly the state will do once it has control has not yet been outlined; Infante-Green is expected to provide more information on Tuesday. In the meantime, the city is planning to appoint interim superintendent Frances Gallo to lead the district. It’s unclear how her role might change if the state takes control.

“I think they are months away from any real alteration,” School Board Chairman Nick Hemond told WPRI 12. “We have to do our job, and we need a superintendent.”

He said while he has been opposed to the idea of state takeover in the past, he has confidence in Infante-Green and Gov. Gina Raimondo, who appointed her.

For now, he said the school board is willing to “get out of the way” so the state can make changes, but he also wants there to be a timeline for state control to end.

“You have to have an exit in sight,” Hemond said. “My caution to the mayor is, you better figure out how it ends. You don’t want a Central Falls intervention in perpetuity.” He pointed out that the next governor could appoint a different commissioner, who may or may not have the same vision as Infante-Green.

City Council President Sabina Matos expressed some frustration about the process so far in a statement, writing that that “despite the Mayor not being communicative or transparent with the Council in these preliminary stages of this process,” she remains committed to making improvements in the schools.

Asked to elaborate, council spokesperson Billy Kepner said council leadership has not had a “seat at the table” in discussions so far and were surprised to learn about the state takeover plan in a meeting with the mayor on Wednesday.

“If it were not for the council president reaching out to the commissioner, the council would still be in the dark,” he said.

Elorza’s communications director Emily Crowell disputed that, providing a list of 13 dates since late April when she said mayor or his staff contacted Matos or her staff about the schools process.

State control would likely affect the council’s powers, since the legislative body passes the funding for the school budget. Kepner said the council wants to be “thoughtful” about those changes, including any change to the requirement that any spending about $5,000 be approved by the council.

The $5,000 threshold was derided in the Hopkins report, and Infante-Green has called it “ridiculous.” Kepner said the council would be open to changing the threshold, but still only has a “finite” amount of money to work with.

At the end of the news conference, a Hope High School teacher emerged from the crowd to make an impassioned plea to the mayor for change.

“You see the signs on these doors, they say ‘asbestos, poison, be careful.’ This is where we’ve been living. For years,” said Betsy Taylor, who had tears running down her face. “I’m so upset. … nothing is being done that’s different. It’s a lot of talk.”

“It is not okay,” Elorza told her. “I can assure you that the results of this process will not be the same as the results of the process from 1993,” referring to a previous report on Providence schools.

Afterwards, Taylor told reporters she teaches 11th grade ESL but doesn’t have the resources she needs to do her job.

“Our hands are tied when we get here,” Taylor said. “And then the teachers are always the one that are villainized.”

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

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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