While the General Assembly’s session will not formally resume until January, some committees continue to meet. In this letter, I will review the Senate Oversight Committee’s latest hearing concerning the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools.
1. The Problem Of Teacher Turnover
At the Committee’s request, the School Department made a presentation concerning its annual responsibility of providing every student with a permanent teacher. When school began, 105 critical teacher positions were vacant, which resulted in part (according to a Providence Journal article) from at least 159 resignations (in addition to retirements) from the prior year. For elementary school students, a lack of a permanent teacher can compromise the entire year’s education for a class of up to 26 children. For students in middle and high school, a missing subject matter teacher can limit learning of over one hundred students taking that missing teacher’s subject.
Lesley Shapiro, Ed.D. testified at the hearing concerning her decision to resign. In her resignation letter (summarized in the Providence Journal article), she wrote that “all of the things that made teaching joyful – classroom autonomy, a rigorous and engaging curriculum and a grading system that rewards hard work – have been dismantled under the takeover.” At the hearing, Dr. Shapiro testified that the School Department had replaced a departing physics teacher at her school with a substitute who was a philosophy major, causing the science department teachers to relinquish their planning period to replace this inadequate substitute. Dr. Shapiro was asked to do evn more, namely to teach two different classes during the same academic period. The stress this created led to her decision to leave the district at a personal financial cost to move to another school where her work was more appreciated.
To be sure, the problem of teacher recruitment and retention goes beyond the Providence Public Schools, as described in, among other places, a recent Atlantic Magazine article, but it was disappointing that the School Department’s presentation concerning the reasons for teacher turnover lacked any candid recognition that the School Department’s own policies and practices were contributing to the rate of resignations and the problem of inadequate staffing in classrooms.
2. The Need For A Better Oversight Process
The hearing’s tone reflected the challenges of the current external oversight process, which is basically limited to quarterly hearings before a Senate committee. Though School Department officials stated they were “willing to be held accountable” for their work, they also expressed their frustration with the hearings, asserting that the hearings were negative, burdensome and detrimental to their work educating of children in Providence.
While nobody enjoys criticism, the problem of teacher retention does not represent the first serious and preventable mistake that the School Department has made during the turnover. These mistakes (and perhaps others of which we are not yet aware) support the conclusion that the Providence School Department is not uniquely exempt from the general requirement that school departments, like any other organizations operated by human beings, benefit from external oversight. To put it another way, if the School Department wishes for its rhetoric about being held accountable to correspond to reality, it will have to accept being accountable to someone other than itself.
In other school districts, external oversight and review is conducted by a specialized body (typically a school committee) that meets regularly, allowing for the exchange of more information both formally and informally, and shared understandings and working relationships that facilitate the provision of both effective and constructive external oversight. It remains my hope that we will find a way, either through agreement or through legislation, to restore effective external oversight to the Providence School Department in a way that will relieve both the School Department and the Senate of the difficulties inherent in the current process.
Let me close by wishing all of us who observe Yom Kippur an easy and meaningful fast.
I hope you are looking forward to a scary Halloween. In this letter I will invite you to a virtual community meeting and share my thoughts about the questions this year’s general election ballot. I appreciate your patience in reading this longer-than-usual email due to the large number of issues that appear on the ballot.
1. Virtual Community Meeting – Wednesday, November 9, 7:00-8:30 p.m.
Some of the best projects I have worked on at both the City and State level have resulted from ideas I have learned from constituents. I invite you to join me at a virtual community meeting a week from Wednesday (November 9) so I can learn your ideas and priorities for the upcoming General Assembly session in January. If you would like to join, please send me an email, and I will send you back a link.
2. Ballot Questions
A number of you have asked me to share my thoughts about the questions that appear on the ballot. Having taken advantage of the “early voting” program last week, I would like to share with you how I voted and my reasons for doing so.
a. State Ballot Questions (Questions 1-3)
Ballot Questions 1-3 seek voter approval for the issuance of three bonds. You can read summaries of the proposals in Secretary of State’s Voter Information Handbook, and/or in an article published in the Providence Journal.
Question 1 seeks voter approval to renovate and refurbish buildings on the University of Rhode Island’s Bay Campus. In addition the summaries provide by the Secretary of State and Boston Globe (above), there is a further description of Question on in an article in the Boston Globe. The funds would pay for renovations to academic buildings that house programs in ocean engineering and research, wave and acoustics studies and other disciplines that fit within the broader rubric of the “blue economy.”
Question 2 seeks voter approval for the issuance of $250 million in bonds to repair school buildings across the State.
Question 3 seeks voter approval for the issuance of $50 million bonds to pay for restoration of vulnerable coastal areas and floodplains ($16 million), small business energy loans ($5 million), improvements at Roger Williams Park ($12 million), open space purchases ($5 million), Narragansett Bay restoration ($3 million), forest restoration ($3 million) and remediation of toxic materials on “brownfields” industrial sites to permit their reuse ($4 million).
I voted “Yes” for each of these proposals. The total amount of bond funding ($400 million) fits within the State’s overall borrowing capacity without creating any strains, and while interest rates are higher than they were at the start of this year, they are still within a reasonable range. Questions 1 and 2 provide for overdue renovations for the facilities at the University of Rhode Island and our State’s public schools respectively. In both cases, the bond funding will support the construction of appropriate facilities for quality education without building new versions of the Taj Mahal. Question 3 provides a broad package of funding of a number of smaller projects. While this package is not congruent with my own preference for how invest $50 million of capital funds, in my opinion the projects are worthy of public investment. I am particularly interested in the coastal restoration, Narragansett Bay restoration, forest restoration and “brownfields” remediation components of this package.
b. Local Ballot Questions (Questions 4-14)
Question 4 requests Providence voter approval for issuance of a bond to fund up to $125 million in school repairs. These funds will be used for renovations of school buildings approved by the Rhode Island Department of Education, which will make them eligible for State reimbursement of approximately 80%-85%. These funds will represent a “down payment” on a much larger set of renovations needed to provide our City’s children with an adequate (never mind a “state of the art”) learning environment, and I voted “Yes” on 4.
Questions 5-14 seek voter approval of various revisions to the City’s Home Rule Charter, and our Council representative Helen Anthony has provided an excellent summary with her recommendations you can read by clicking here. I followed Councilwoman Anthony’s expert advice and voted Yes on Questions 8, 10, 12 and 14, and No on Questions 5, 6, 7, 9, 11 and 13, for the reasons she states. To her excellent analysis I can add a few points from my own City Council experience.
Questions 5, 6, 7 and 13 (re-approval of mayoral appointees, lower threshold to hire consultants, removal procedure for appointed officers and City Treasurer powers) all relate to the balance of power between the City Council and the Mayor. In my first term on the Council (2011-14), Mayor Taveras and Council President Solomon had a productive working relationship, and the types of power struggles contemplated by these Charter provisions did not occur – we were too busy addressing the City’s major challenges. In contrast, under the City Council leadership of my second term (2015-18) and the current term, these squabbles have increased, and while I was on the City Council it was more often the case that the Mayor represented City-wide interests, while the Council Presidents in question were trying to leverage their position to extract a local (or in some cases personal) advantage. The same analysis applies to Question 13 (City Treasurer powers), as the Treasurer (who is part of the City Council office) during my second term would refuse to sign City check that were properly issued, thereby abusing his authority to the detriment of the City. I voted NO on each of these questions.
Question 11 (changing the School Board composition to five elected members and five mayoral appointments) does not make sense at this time, as Helen indicates, because the school district is under State control. I had the privilege of serving on the School Board during 2000-02 as a Mayoral (Cianci) appointment. During that time, I was able to act without political influence, instead basing all of my decisions on what I considered to be in the children’s best interest. (It may have helped that Mayor Cianci was otherwise occupied during those years with Operation Plunderdome.) While we faced a number of issues on which we has our disagreements, I found during those years that the School Board based its decisions on the Board members’ perception of the children’s best interest. In a recent Boston Globe op-ed, Mayor Elorza and former Mayors Paolino and Taveras state their case against an elected school board.
I can see some advantages to elected School Board members (who can respond more directly to a parent’s concern about a particular situation) but also risks associated with the involvement of political factions, campaign finance and the participation of outside actors in school board elections. Also, I question whether it is good policy to have a 10-member body, as that could generate 5-5 tie votes that prevent important issues from being resolved. For these reasons, I voted “No” on Question 11.
In conclusion, I encourage you to exercise your right to vote either by mail, early at 444 Westminster or at your precinct on November 8, and I look forward to your feedback the following night about the upcoming General Assembly session.
I hope you all are looking forward to a festive holiday season, including the lighting of Chanukah candles tonight for those of you who celebrate that holiday. While the General Assembly session does not begin until January, I wish to discuss with you a controversy developing at the Providence Public Schools in connection with announced plans to close three schools due to defective school buildings.
1. The City’s longstanding need to upgrade school facilities
We have known about the poor condition of City’s school buildings for a long time. While Providence qualifies for State reimbursement of more than 80% of the cost of school construction, we have been limited by the State funding approval process. State funding is delayed in part because of the need to review construction projects to ensure the money is well spent, but also due to the State’s failure to provide adequate funding for the backlog of approved projects. Fortunately, a number of Providence projects have received State approval after many years of dialogue, and we Providence voters approved a bond issue in November to pay for an extensive set of facilities improvements. In some school districts, facilities upgrades can occur smoothly through the use of spare capacity, or “swing space,” where schools can relocate while their building is renovated or repaired. Unfortunately, Providence lacks the capacity for this option.
2. Existing policy for school closure decisions.
There also are other times, beyond facilities upgrades, when a school should be closed, perhaps due to problems within the school, declines in enrollment or for other reasons. In my time on the School Board, we made the difficult decision to close the Alternative Learning Project, a high school that suffered from chronically poor academic performance that persisted in the face of numerous efforts of support and intervention. We did not make our decision, however, until we followed the process set forth in School Board Policy 904, which dates back to 1972 and requires that the affected community receive notice and an opportunity to be heard before any such decision is made. In other words, before taking the drastic action of closing a school, the School Department must not only act for the right reasons, but it also must carry out its decision process in the right way.
3. The School Department’s unfortunate decision to ignore longstanding school closure policy.
In the past week, the Providence School Department announced its decision to close three schools without consulting with the School Board, the communities in the affected schools, or the Providence Teachers Union. The School Department did not follow Policy 904; instead, it informed the media that the policy did not apply. This position is debatable; however, even if one assumes that the post-takeover School Department is not legally bound by those policies, the Department is at a minimum responsible for creating confusion by leaving the policies online for the public to read on its website. It is not clear whether the School Department’s position is to ignore some (but not all) of the existing policies, or whether it has thrown the entire set of policies into the trash can for the duration of the takeover. At a minimum, the School Department owes the public a clear explanation of which (if any) of those policies remain in effect and the reasons for its selective (or complete) abandonment of those policies, which policies it has adopted to replace the ones it has discarded, and to clarify its position on the Providence Public Schools website.
4. The impact of the School Department’s unfortunate decision
Moving beyond these institutional considerations, there is a good reason why School Board Policy 904 has been a vital part of Providence Public School operations for the last 50 years. A decision to close a school has a drastic impact on the children, the educators, the families and the community in which the school is located. Any decision to liquidate such a community must be taken cautiously, respecting the dignity of the affected stakeholders. At Wednesday night’s School Board meeting, which was dominated by the justified complaints by stakeholders concerning their mistreatment, School Board members suggested that it would be best for the School Department to rescind its closure decision and offer the affected communities the time to be heard before any new decision is made. Their comments were followed on Thursday night by members of the House Oversight Committee, whose efforts to encourage the School Department representatives to acknowledge their mistakes went unanswered.
We all want to improve the quality of the school facilities in which our children learn, and we have been working diligently on this issue for years prior to the State takeover. Today’s School Department is fooling nobody when it claims to be the first to come up with this idea or the first to take action to carry it out. As Providence taxpayers, we voted in November to authorize the issuance of bonds to pay for extensive school construction. The School Department’s decision to violate longstanding policy to make unilateral decisions of school closures is a betrayal of us as Providence taxpayers, and of the Providence children, families and educators who were denied the dignity of being consulted before this unprecedented disruption was imposed upon them. For these reasons, it is my hope the School Department will promptly reconsider its grievous and unnecessary errors of the past week.
I hope you have had the opportunity to enjoy this weekend’s respite from winter weather (albeit with ongoing concern about the impacts of climate change). In this week’s letter, I will describe the “core instruction budget,” which is the first of three components in the State’s education aid funding formula, and explain why and how, in my opinion, it needs improvement.
1. The overall inadequacy of the State aid funding formula
In this letter and those that follow on this subject, I will argue that the funding formula is inadequate to meet its overall goals for the State in general, and even more so in the case of Providence (and urban core communities) in particular. One can view this overall inadequacy through State-level data provided by the United States Census through its Annual Survey of School Finances (and its most recent tabulation for fiscal year 2020). As described in my January 1 letter, the Rhode Island funding formula is designed to have the State to pay for 50% of the total cost of public education Statewide. In contrast, according to the Census data, Rhode Island’s state government funds only 40.4% of the cost of education, of which the funding formula accounts for 32.4%, far below the 50% target stated in the funding formula. (The same table indicates that, on a national average, states provide 47% of the cost of public education and that Rhode Island’s 40.4% state share is the eleventh lowest in the country.)
2. The inadequacy of Rhode Island’s “core instruction budget”
Why does Rhode Island’s funding formula, which ostensibly is designed to provide State funds to cover 50% of the total cost of education, in fact provide less than one-third of that cost? I will now explain how inadequacies in the first component, the “core instruction budget,” presents a major factor contributing to this deficit.
As explained in my January 1 letter, Rhode Island’s education aid funding formula begins with a calculation of the average amount of money required to educate a student without special needs. This year, the State calculates that amount at $11,050. To develop that figure, the State develops a “market basket” of expenses to operate a school of regular-needs children as presented in this Slide prepared by the R.I. Department of Education (RIDE). The list is missing several key budget lines, particularly those related to operations (such as utilities, building maintenance, transportation, etc.) which consume 25% of a typical school district’s budget. In other words, the funding formula begins with a 25% deficit – each school district is required to pay for operations completely with local funds before there is any cost-sharing with State aid under the funding formula.
As a result, one way to improve the funding formula is to have the “core instruction budget” include all expenses, beginning with operating expenses.
3. Additional context, qualifications and nuance
As I stated in my January 1 letter, the State aid funding formula contains a number of nuances (many of which I consider unhelpful) that make my general description incomplete. I would like to mention a few of them here.
a. Other shortcomings of the “core instruction budget.”
In addition to the issue of whether the “core instruction budget” is complete, I have questions about the adequacy of calculated amounts for some of the components that are included. With that said, these differences are of a smaller magnitude than the formula’s wholesale failure to include operating expenses.
b. Expenditures by some local communities exceeding the State average amount
First, Rhode Island’s local communities are not required to limit their budgets to the “foundation” amount as a condition of receiving State aid. For example, the per pupil cost in some communities such as Little Compton and Block Island exceed $30,000, due to the districts’ small size or because the community wishes to commit additional funds for public education beyond the State’s average cost per child figures.
c. The 50% figure is an overall figure which varies from district to district
Second, the funding formula’s target of 50% of the total aggregate cost Statewide does not imply that all districts will share the cost of public education with the State on a 50/50 basis. Instead, the funding formula adjusts the State’s share of local school budgets based on their relative ability to pay, as measured principally by the amount of taxable property per student in a given community. Thus, for example, at last check, the State funded approximately 60% of the Providence school budget, exceeding the 50/50 overall target, because Providence’s property tax base per student is significantly below the State average. Even though Providence’s 60% exceeds the target baseline of 50%, I will explain in future letters why I believe the current formula contains gaps that prevent Providence from receiving the amounts of State aid that the formula ostensibly should provide under the 50/50 overall cost share on which it is constructed.
4. Future letters concerning the funding formula’s other key components
I plan to write two more letters to complete my description of the funding formula. The first letter will review the “student success factor” which as previously described is intended to cover the additional costs of students with above-average needs, such as those in poverty and/or multi-language learners. The second letter will review the “state share” calculation, by which the State determines how much of each school district’s budget will be paid for with local funds and how much with State funds.
By excluding operational expense from the “core instruction budget,” the State’s funding formula begins by short-changing local school districts by 25% of their overall expense, instead asking them to cover that amount exclusively with local funds.
I hope your New Year is off to a happy and healthy start. With the General Assembly scheduled to begin its next session this week, I am pleased to resume my (mostly) weekly letters to inform you about issues we will be facing. In this week’s letter, I will provide an introduction to the State’s school aid funding formula.
Last year’s State budget appropriated over $1 billion in aid to local school districts, including more than $277 million to the Providence Public Schools. State aid is allocated based principally upon a formula originally adopted in 2008 and modified slightly over time. In 2014, the General Assembly conducted a formal review of the formula, inviting public comment. At that time I submitted as a private citizen a Report with Exhibits advocating for changes to provide more equitable State aid for urban core school districts.
This year, the Senate’s leadership has announced its intention to review the formula to determine what modifications, if any, are appropriate. In this week’s letter I will provide a general introduction to the current formula’s basic principles and design. In future letters, I will discuss how the current formula as implemented diverges from its founding principles, and how possible amendments can improve it.
A. Four basic principles of the current formula
The current funding formula is based on four basic principles.
The first two of these principles support the calculation of a “foundational” school budget, which is designed to represent the cost of education per student as follows:
1. The formula calculates a “core instruction” budget that represents that average cost to educate a student without any special needs.
In this year’s budget, the State developed a per student core instruction budget of approximately $11,050.
2. Next, the formula makes an adjustment in the per student education cost for the additional needs of certain students, such as those in poverty, multi-language learners, etc.
The funding formula increases the per-student budget by 40% for each student whose family’s income qualifies for free or reduced lunch.
Based on these two principles, the formula develops a “foundation budget” for each school district by tabulating the sum of its per student costs, depending upon the special needs adjustments indicated for particular individual students.
The third and fourth principle of the State’s funding formula calculate how the cost for the foundation budget will be shared between the State and the local school district. It consists of two components:
3. First, the formula decides what percentage of the State’s overall foundational budget will be paid for with State funds, and what percentage will be paid for by school districts in the aggregate. This determines the total amount of State aid to be distributed under the formula.
While there are some nuances here, the basic division amounts to a 50/50 split of the payment of the core instructional budget between the State and the aggregation of all of the State’s school districts.
4. Then, the formula allocates the overall level of State aid among local school districts based upon their ability to pay.
To calculate ability to pay, the funding formula relies primarily on a comparison between the size of a school district’s property base divided by the number of students who must be supported by local taxes. According to my unofficial calculation using State data, the average Rhode Island school district had, in 2014-15, almost $900,000 of taxable property for each public school student; however, that varied widely across different communities. For example, in 2014-15 Narragansett had more than $4 million per student in taxable property, while Providence had less than $300,000 per student.
These four basic principles are, at a very broad and general level, similar to those in many other state education aid funding formulas across the county and a reasonable starting point to develop a fair and equitable funding formula in Rhode Island. In future letters, I will describe how the current version of Rhode Island’s formula diverges from the basic goals of these four basic principles, primarily to the detriment of Providence and other urban core school districts.
Yesterday’s District 3 primary voters renewed my nomination to appear on November’s ballot as the Democratic Party candidate to represent our neighborhood in the Rhode Island Senate. Thank you for approving my return to office with an unofficial majority of 73.6% to 26.4% for my worthy opponent Robin Xiong, whom I commend for providing us with a substantive choice. My hundreds of discussions with you at your doors helped inform me of the priorities and ideas for our neighborhood, our City and our State. As has been my experience in prior campaigns, you provided me with a valuable free public education, something that I remain committed to enshrining in our State Constitution as a fundamental right for all of our school-aged children.
Since there are no Republican or independent candidates for the seat, I can in the coming weeks and months (after catching my breath) begin work on legislative initiatives for next session of the General Assembly. As we get closer to the start of that session, I look forward to renewing our dialogue through the weekly emails that help me explain to you what I am working on, and which, through your feedback, help me to do a better job as our State Senator.
As almost 4,500 of us voted in the primary (including almost 1,200 who voted for my opponent), I would be presumptuous to describe the outcome as unanimous “mandate” for a particular detailed policy platform. With that said. I believe this year’s primary result provides a useful contrast to last year’s, in which the 31.2% plurality I received raised questions about both the legitimacy of my election and whether the differences and disagreements among our electorate overwhelmed those items on which we could agree.
As you may remember, last year I reached out to my four fellow candidates after the primary. Three of them were kind enough to share with me their views and ideas, which helped inform my work in the Senate. I view this year’s result as a validation of last year’s outreach, and as a data point suggesting that our neighborhood’s areas of agreement are wider and deeper than those areas on which we disagree. While I will continue to do my best to represent all of our District, I am hopeful that I can return to work next January to work with my colleagues to advance those broad areas of agreement our neighborhood shares with the vigor and urgency that they require.
Many of you have been gracious enough to share with me your thoughts and ideas about the State when I have interrupted your dinner. Your feedback has helped to educate me about what is important to the residents of our District, while giving me new policy ideas to pursue if our District chooses to send me back for another term. In this letter, I provide an update on mail ballots, early voting and voting precincts for the September 13 primary.
The deadline for submitting a mail ballot application is next Tuesday, August 23. You can obtain the application form by clicking on this link, printing up and filling out the application form, and returning it to Providence City Hall by next Tuesday.
Beginning on Wednesday, August 24, you can vote early in City Hall during business hours. Early voting will continue through Monday, September 12.
Finally, you can vote on Primary Day, September 13. As a result of the 2022 redistricting, the Providence Board of Canvassers has divided Senate District 3 into a new set of precincts with new assigned polling stations. You can find your polling station from the Secretary of State’s website by clicking on this link. The polling station assignments are different from last year, but are similar (though far from identical) to the polling station assignments from the 2020 presidential election. The following map and chart provide a rough idea of where your polling station is located, based on your home address:
Thank you for electing me last year to serve as our State Senator, granting me the privilege of returning to public service. With the conclusion of the General Assembly session, I have begun my campaign to ask your support to allow me to continue working on the projects you elected me to pursue.
In my eight-month term as our Senator to date, I successfully advanced two legislative priorities of our community, namely:
There is much more work to do, and if given the opportunity I would like to advance these issues (among others):
For those of you who are not familiar with my background, let me tell you a little about myself. I have deep roots in our neighborhood, growing up on the East Side and graduating from Classical High School. After I completed my education and began my legal career, I returned to our neighborhood in 1990 to raise my family and practice law. My three children attended the Providence Public Schools, and I had the opportunity to serve our community on the Providence School Board and the Providence City Council, as unofficially as a private citizen advocating for the re-opening of Nathan Bishop Middle School and representing pro bono a South Providence neighborhood group in a successful effort to prevent the opening of a solid waste transfer station.
I am preparing for a seriously contested primary campaign, and I need your help. My first task is collecting at least 100 more signatures to qualify for the ballot during July 6-15. If you have time to help collect signatures, please sign up on my Volunteer Form. You also will find on that form other ways you can help, such as hosting a lawn sign and/or a “meet the candidate” coffee hour. Many of you already have made a financial contribution to my campaign, which is both appreciated and needed given the amount of resources this contest will require. If you have not yet contributed but wish to do so at this time, please click on the “Contribute” button on the bottom of this letter.
To qualify for the ballot, I will be holding a “Signing Party” in the front yard of my home at 330 Grotto Avenue on Wednesday, July 6 at 6:00-8:00 p.m. (In case of inclement weather, I will open my garage door and we will set up there.) I will be joined by Councilwoman Helen Anthony and State Representative Edie Ajello, who also will have petitions for your signature should you choose. (I believe both are doing an exceptional job representing our neighborhood in City Hall and in the State House.) Modest refreshments will be served. If you are able to come and you are interested, you can pick up a lawn sign at that time and/or offer other ways to volunteer. I also will enjoy hearing your ideas about how to improve our State and our State government.
Thank you for your consideration. I look forward to seeing you on the campaign trail.