State-run Providence schools seek $5 million boost from city coffers

Providence
Providence School Department_185397

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When Providence leaders acceded to the state takeover of Providence Public Schools in 2019, they also gave up significant power over how much money to appropriate to the district.

Now for the first time, the state-controlled district is asking the city to cough up.

The Crowley Act — a state law that allows the R.I. Department of Education to intervene in local school districts — dictates how much money at minimum the city has to appropriate to the schools once the budget and programs are under the purview of the state.

In the case of a state takeover, the statute says, “the local school committee shall be responsible for funding that school or school district at the same level as in the prior academic year increased by the same percentage as the state total of school aid is increased.”

The school department is therefore expecting nearly $5 million in additional funds from the city in the current fiscal year, Chief Operating Officer Zack Scott told Providence School Board members Wednesday night.

He described the increase in funding as an “obligation” under the Crowley Act.

“In our mind, it’s not necessarily up for interpretation,” Scott said.

It’s not yet clear if the city will pay up.

The Providence City Council has not yet passed a budget for the current 2020-21 fiscal year, even though eight months of it have already elapsed. The delay was mainly because the state’s own budget for this fiscal year was not completed until December, leaving municipalities uncertain about how much state aid they would receive.

But when the General Assembly did eventually pass a budget, it included a 3.7% increase in total state aid to all school districts. Now school officials in the state-controlled Providence district argue that means the city must increase its own appropriation by the same percentage.

It comes out to roughly $135 million in city aid, compared to the $130 million Providence appropriated to the school department last year.

The Providence School Department’s calculations on how much money it says the city must provide to the schools.

Mayor Jorge Elorza is expected to submit a revised version of his 2020-21 budget proposal to the City Council as soon as next week. But a document prepared by his top financial officer and submitted to the council this week included no increase to the schools in budget projections for the rest of the current fiscal year.

Ben Smith, Elorza’s press secretary, said discussions are still underway between the mayor and school officials about the potential funding increase. He did not immediately say whether the Elorza administration is interpreting its obligation under the Crowley Act differently from the state.

The proposed budget is expected to include salary increases for Providence Police officers, as part of a yet-to-be-approved collective bargaining agreement struck with the police union.

The situation is the first test of the funding provision of the Crowley Act, since no new city budget has been approved since the state takeover began. The requirement to increase funding was also memorialized in a collaboration agreement signed by Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Elorza in November 2019.

Elorza was given an opportunity to formally oppose the takeover of schools at a hearing in 2019, as were the Providence City Council, Providence School Board and superintendent at the time. None of the parties opposed the takeover then, though three councilors individually expressed concerns about how the state would be held accountable during its intervention in the schools.

Because of the state takeover, the City Council and Elorza have virtually no say over how the school department spends its money, though the city still owns and maintains the school buildings. The majority of the district’s $410 million budget is provided by the state through a funding formula.

Another financial quirk of the state takeover involves any deficits the school department incurs, with the city no longer responsible for covering that at the end of the year. Scott told the School Board the district is starting a rainy day fund, using a surplus from last year’s budget that was achieved when schools were closed due to the pandemic.

The request for the additional $5 million was not well received by Councilman John Igliozzi, the chairman of the Finance Committee that considers the budget.

“You’re asking me to give you more money to add to your surplus?” Igliozzi remarked. “It’s unconscionable that you’re looking for more taxpayer dollars just to add to a surplus to the school department.”

He said he plans to invite school officials to come before the committee and show evidence that the state intervention is “having a positive impact” before he’d considering appropriating millions of additional dollars to the department.

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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