Providence school chief to step down at end of school year

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Months after his contract was extended through 2020, Providence school Superintendent Christopher Maher announced Tuesday he plans to step down from his position at the end of the school year.

In a letter to his colleagues, Maher said he was making his decision public now to give the city “ample time and support for a smooth transition for the next leader of this district.” He called the position “the most rewarding and challenging” job he has held.

“Throughout my career, I have always sought out opportunities to address the inequities in our society. public education has the potential to break the vicious cycle of generational poverty that persists in America,” he wrote in his letter. “And when it is done well, I do not believe there is any work more important or honorable than the work that we do to support children, as families, teachers, principals, staff, and community members.”

Maher did not offer a specific reason for his resignation, although he acknowledged “my responsibilities as a father have been calling me.” He said he and his family will remain in Providence, and his three children will continue to attend public school in the district.

In his letter, Maher said the district still needs to improve outcomes for many of its students. Only 14% of Providence students in grades three through eight we proficient in English Language Arts, according to results on the Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam. In math, the proficiency rate was 10%.

“Let there be no doubt that we have to do much better for our students,” Maher said. “The gaps that persist within our country and state for children of color and children of poverty are overwhelmingly evident in our district. There is much work to be done.”

But Maher has enjoyed a good relationship with Mayor Jorge Elorza, most members of the City Council and the Providence School Board. He has also worked with state leaders to increase funding for English language learners, which now comprise about 30% of the student population in the district.

The school board extended Maher’s contract for one year last fall, which would have carried him through the 2020 school year. He declined to accept a $2,000 raise that was due to him beginning last July, in part because the city’s teachers were still working without a contract. His current salary is $203,000. He is also entitled to $400 a month for automobile expenses, as well as 30 vacation days per year, according to his contract. 

Nicholas Hemond, who was recently reappointed president of the board, said Maher still enjoyed the full support of the board. He praised Maher for having the “strongest connection” to Providence as a superintendent since Arthur Zarella, who led the district in the 1990s.

He said Maher has been able to forge relationships with the city’s teachers, principals and parents as well as politicians, particularly at the State House. But he acknowledged Maher has been contemplating whether he could commit to serving another three years in the job for several weeks.

“Chris was not asked to resign,” Hemond said. “Chris was not pressured to resign. He was not given an ultimatum. “This is a personal decision.  If we offered him a three-year contract, it would pass the school board 9-0.”

Maher’s resignation comes as the district is facing severe financial challenges, with a budget shortfall that is projected to grow from $12 million next year to $42 million by 2024. He has warned that the district will face deep cuts if the city or state don’t step in to provide more funding.

In a five-year budget projection issued in December, the Elorza administration told the City Council it did not plan to increase the city’s contribution of $128.5 million to the district in any of the next five years.

Elorza, who has repeatedly credited Maher for moving to Providence for the job and sending his children to public schools in the district, issued a brief statement thanking Maher for his work.

“During his tenure, Superintendent Maher has worked to ensure that our principals and teachers feel supported and our students learn in environments that inspire and challenge them,” Elorza said. “We are grateful for all of the work that he has done here in our city and wish him the best of luck on all future endeavors.”

Hemond said the school board plans to create a search committee of between nine and 15 members in the coming weeks. He said he would prefer to select a leader with some experience at the superitndent level. He said he does not expect Maher’s replacement to be an internal hire.

Maher was first named interim superintendent in 2015 after serving as president of Mass Insight Education, a Boston-based consulting firm. (Dr. Susan Lusi, the superintendent he replaced, now serves as CEO of Mass Insight.) Maher was named the permandent head of schools in April 2016.

A former coordinator of charter schools for the city of Baltimore, Maher earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and a master’s degree in public administration from New York University. He also holds a graduate certification in school administration and supervision from Johns Hopkins University. He was the founding principal of the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Baltimore.

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Dan McGowan (dmcgowan@wpri.com) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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