PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The interim superintendent of Providence Public Schools insisted Wednesday that all buildings will be clean and safe for students to return to class on Sept. 3.
Asked whether all schools would be ready to open, Superintendent Frances Gallo replied with a “resounding yes.” She was being questioned by members of the Providence City Council at a special meeting to discuss the condition of the buildings.
Not everyone was convinced, including Council Majority Leader Jo-Ann Ryan, who asked why the council wasn’t provided with a running list of repair projects at every single Providence school. (The city has released a list of 25 schools being repaired this summer, including specific projects and their estimated dates of completion.)
“I don’t have confidence that we’re ready to open on day one,” Ryan said. “I want to know what’s happening at every single school.”
The councilors, who returned from August recess to hold the meeting, quizzed Gallo along with Public Property Director Michael Borg about the buildings amid ongoing concerns following June’s release of the Johns Hopkins report, which described disgusting conditions in some schools.
The city is paying longtime custodial company Aramark $18.5 million in the upcoming school year to clean and maintain the schools.
“Aramark knows … that you don’t do the job, we’re not going to keep you,” Gallo said. “This is the kind of thing that needs to be done.”
The company has had the school custodial contract since 2005, and was recently renewed for five more years, through 2023.
“Who is holding them accountable?” Ryan asked at the meeting. “Who manages Aramark?”
“Me,” replied Borg. “I, as public property director, manage that in my department.”
Borg said the city plans to spread the word about a work order system that allows Aramark to receive and track maintenance requests from staff members, so that they can receive updates on the work they need done.
“It’s not fully been embraced,” Borg told reporters after the meeting. He said staffers will often tell a custodian directly about a problem, which means there’s no record if it isn’t completed.
Borg said teachers and school staff can fill out a paper form in the school office with their maintenance request and their email address, which will be entered in Aramark’s system. Submissions can also be made through the PVD311 app, though that requires the extra step of a 311 staffer sending the request to Aramark.
Asked how he would grade Aramark on a scale of A through F, Borg didn’t give the company a letter grade.
“I evaluate them on a daily basis,” Borg said. “It changes every day depending on what the issue is.”
Aramark has hired Frank McMahon, the president of well-known Providence public relations firm Advocacy Solutions. McMahon was in attendance at the meeting, but told WPRI 12 he was not authorized to speak for the company because he is only consulting for them.
State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is planning to come out with a preliminary order in the coming days to take control of Providence schools using a law called the Crowley Act. Asked if she would consider changing the Aramark contract, her spokesperson said it was too soon to say.
Council President Sabina Matos said she has confidence in Gallo’s assurance that the schools will be safe, but wants more details on the timeline to do more school repairs that aren’t on the list provided to the council.
She also criticized Mayor Jorge Elorza’s plan to have volunteer clean-up days at several schools on Aug. 23 and 24. She said she recently attended a volunteer clean-up day at Nathanael Greene Middle school, which required several days of advance work just to set up the projects for the volunteers to do.
“We have to make sure that the contractor that we’re paying so much money to do the work, that they’re doing the work,” Matos said.
Borg said the volunteer days are part of a “community effort” to get involved with improving the schools.
Councilman David Salvatore, who called for the hearing on the school buildings, said the meeting was a “good start” but wants more evidence that the schools are ready to open on Sept. 3.
“We have to address these building maintenance and capital improvement issues now,” Salvatore said.
He also said he wants the Aramark work orders and their completion statuses to be “public facing” so parents and the public can see what work is being done.
While the Hopkins report raised the profile of the problems in Providence schools, Borg pointed out that the city already had a long-term capital plan for the schools prior to the report coming out.
“We knew that we had issues and we were already taking action,” Borg said. “Can we get better? Absolutely.”