Wagner: Providence needs to fix education governance structure

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is calling on Providence officials to overhaul the way they govern schools in the capital city as part of their effort to replace outgoing Superintendent Christopher Maher, who announced his resignation Tuesday.

Wagner has long viewed the layers of bureaucracy in city government as an impediment to improving student outcomes, although he has rarely vented his frustration in public. He did weigh in on the City Council’s decision last year to establish a School Department Oversight Committee, calling the panel the “Committee for Additional Interference and Oversight.”

But Wagner, who is also preparing to leave his state job, warned that Providence will find itself questioning why another superintendent is leaving in a few years if it doesn’t fix a system that forces the head of schools to run often minor decisions up the flagpole to the mayor’s office and the City Council for approval. 

“My conclusion is it’s a complete waste of time until we change the governance structure of the Providence school system,” Wagner said in a telephone interview Tuesday. He made similar comments to The Providence Journal.

Maher’s surprising decision to leave the district at the end of the current school year came only months after his contract was extended through the 2020 school year. He has remained popular with teachers and principals throughout his four years on the job, despite a long stretch where educators clashed with Mayor Jorge Elorza over their union contract.

Maher did not offer a specific reason for his resignation, although he indicated he wants to spend more time with his family in a letter to his staff. He plans to remain in Providence with his wife and three children, who attend public school in the district.

Maher declined to address Wagner’s critique of the way the city governs education. A spokesperson for Mayor Jorge Elorza also declined to comment.

To support his criticism of the city, Wagner pointed to comments former Superintendent Susan Lusi made in 2015 when she left the district.

At the time, Lusi suggested the city has created a “very complex, time-consuming and redundant system” when it comes to decision-making. She noted that small changes to the school department’s organizational chart often have to be approved by the City Council. Similarly, all contracts worth more than $5,000 must be approved by the council and the Board of Contract and Supply.

Lusi also pointed to a 2008 audit of the school department that noted that the superintendent has an “inordinate number of supervisors,” including the mayor, City Council, a mayoral-appointed school board and the state commissioner of education.

“The powers that are here need to put all of themselves in a room and figure out who does what and how that process can be as expeditious as possible,” Lusi said at the time.

Maher has largely enjoyed a strong relationship with the mayor and most members of the City Council, although he has experienced the same challenges Lusi described. In 2017, when the school department received an unexpected $4 million increase in state aid, the council delayed the approval on how Maher wanted to spend the money for several weeks so it could make changes to the plan.

But when the council created a School Department Oversight Committee last year, Maher was pleased with the decision. It meant school matters would be overseen by then-Chairman Sam Zurier, a former School Board member viewed as someone who was more interested in education policy discussions than nitpicking over budgetary issues. Zurier has since retired from the council and the committee no longer exists.

As officials begin their search for Maher’s replacement, Wagner stressed that Providence needs to give more autonomy to its superintendent.

“The answer to Providence is not more layers of oversight in Providence,” he said.

Wagner said he’s hopeful two newly established parent groups in Rhode Island – Parents Leading for Educational Equity and Providence Parents – will urge city leaders to fix the governance challenges the district faces.

“This is the only hill worth tackling as a primary focus right now,” Wagner said.

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

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