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.