PROVIDENCE, R.I (WPRI) – A group of parents are threatening to take legal action over the impending closure of a Providence elementary school in Washington Park, arguing the state’s education commissioner did not have the unilateral authority to close the school.
The Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary School at Broad Street is one of two elementary schools slated for closure this spring, along with Carl G. Lauro Elementary School. Another school, Gilbert Stuart Middle School, is also slated for closure, but not until 2025.
In a letter to the R.I. Council on Elementary and Secondary Education obtained by Target 12, attorney Elizabeth Wiens argues that body – also known as the K-12 Council – is the one with the authority to close a school under the state takeover of Providence’s school district.
“The commissioner lacks authority to permanently close a school,” Wiens wrote. “The decision was made without any input from parents, students, teacher and other affected parties. In fact, it appears that even the council was not informed.”
Reached by phone, Wiens said she is representing multiple families who are considering filing suit.
“Should the council refuse to act to pause the closure of ASF, we intend to seek intervention from the court,” Wiens wrote.
Asked for a response, a spokesperson for R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said she was “granted broad authority to lead the district” under the Crowley Act, the law that allowed for the state takeover in Providence.
“Legal counsel is reviewing this letter and will provide the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education an opinion,” said the spokesperson, Victor Morente.
During an interview Wednesday on 12 News at 4, Infante-Green said she will not be pausing the plan to close the schools this spring.
“It’s unfortunate, and I know parents feel very passionate,” she said. “We hear them. But we have to think about what’s right for the entire district, for all kids.”
Infante-Green said the district has to adjust its physical footprint due to significant enrollment declines, which make it financially difficult to keep every school building open.
“We need to think about what is fiscally responsible and what makes sense for the entire district,” she said.
The school closures were disclosed by the state-run district back in December — a shock announcement that was first posted on social media by the Providence Teachers Union as a rumor, only to be later confirmed by district leaders.
The proposal to close the schools was not brought before any public body for approval before the decision was made, nor were any public meetings held to solicit input.
Officials at both the R.I Department of Education and Providence Public School District discussed the possibility of closing schools for months behind the scenes last year, Target 12 has learned, discussing nine different schools that were named in a report compiled by consultants at Ernst & Young (EY).
The district signed a $475,000 contract with EY last June to analyze the district’s enrollment trends and provide analysis on cost savings including potential school closures. The contract ends next week.
The report used enrollment projections and building conditions from the 2017 Jacobs report to analyze various closure scenarios, which included Broad and Lauro but also Webster Avenue, Reservoir Avenue, Alfred Lima, Veazie Street and Esek Hopkins Elementary Schools, plus West Broadway and Gilbert Stuart Middle Schools.
RIDE officials say they ultimately used a more updated Downes Construction report on the facilities’ conditions before making the final decision.
Broad Street and Lauro were selected in part because they are underutilized, at 59% and 49%, respectively, according to RIDE chief of staff Krystafer Redden. The facilities conditions further substantiated the decision, Redden said.
While the EY report listed other potential school closures for 2024 and 2025, Redden said he was not aware of any other closure plans beyond Broad Street, Lauro and Gilbert Stuart.
Hundreds of pages of emails obtained by Target 12 from the Providence Public School Department through a public records request are largely redacted, keeping out of view large swaths of the discussions about the school closures.
RIDE and district officials have touted plans to build and renovate several new or “like-new” schools in the future, using school bond money approved by Providence voters.
“This needs to be the story, not school closure,” said Mario Carreño, RIDE’s chief operating officer, in an email to other staffers back in July.
Families of children who attend the two closing elementary schools are expected to find out in March where their children are going to school next year, after filling out preference forms in February. Teachers at the two schools are in the process of interviewing for other jobs within the district.
Gilbert Stuart will be phasing out over the next few school years, waiting to close until all the existing students have moved on to high school.
At the Broad Street school in particular, families and students have been consistently protesting the closure, showing up at meetings of the K-12 Council and the Providence School Board.
“Everything they did was in secrecy,” said Katelyn Crudale, a mom of two students at the Broad Street school. She is the president of its PTO and one of the plaintiffs in the potential lawsuit.
Crudale said the ultimate goal is to keep the school open, potentially moving students to swing space while the building is reconstructed. In the short term, the group is hoping for a pause on the closure until the public can weigh in on the plan.
The demonstrators walked into the K-12 Council meeting after their march on Tuesday, as the council members were questioning district officials about both the process and the legality of the closures.
“As a superintendent of schools, I never thought I had the authority to close a school on my own,” said Michael Almeida, a board member who used to be the superintendent in Coventry. “It needs board approval. Something’s just not sitting right with me.”
District leaders have since acknowledged the rocky rollout, but have not indicated any plans to pause or rethink the decision.
“It is not a viable solution to keep all of our schools open,” said Zack Scott, the deputy superintendent of operations for the district.
Providence City Council members have also started to question the shifting narrative around the district’s plan to spend the hundreds of millions in bond money, which the city will borrow.
While the district is currently under state control, Providence’s city government still controls the buildings. RIDE has a “memorandum of agreement” (MOA) with the city regarding its construction plans.
Councilman John Goncalves, who chairs the City Property Committee, questioned district leaders at a meeting Wednesday night about the change in the agreement from 2019, when the district was planning to put millions of dollars into Broad Street and Lauro schools.
In light of the closures, much of that money is now allocated elsewhere in an updated MOA submitted to the council Wednesday.
“The lack of transparency around these changes is alarming and problematic,” Goncalves said. “It’s just not right for people to hear about this in the darkness of night.”
Crudale said she hopes the parents don’t need to file a lawsuit, though she’s not optimistic that RIDE will respond to their concerns.
“I feel like they don’t care about us,” Crudale said.