This past week brought two developments concerning the State’s takeover of the Providence Public Schools. Both demonstrate the difficult balance between the need to achieve educational goals without political interference on the one hand, and the need for accountability and oversight on the other.
a. The Teachers Contract
The first example occurred during Thursday night’s Senate Finance Committee hearing, when the Commissioner spoke about the current Providence Teachers Union contract for which negotiations began in early 2020, and which was approved in August, 2021. The Commissioner acknowledged that the Hopkins Report and the State had identified that contract as a major impediment to progress, and that its reform was a top takeover priority. The Commissioner stated that she spent hundreds of hours of her time on the contract, and that the State spent more than a million dollars on attorney’s fees. Despite this, the Commissioner was unable to answer a series of basic questions about the content of the Providence teachers’ contract, and how that contract’s terms diverged significantly and unfavorably from other Rhode Island teachers’ contracts.
The Commissioner stated she believed the approved contract was sufficient to meet the District’s goals without invoking the State’s extraordinary authority under takeover law (called the Crowley Act), even though she had stated to the Oversight Committee three weeks ago that the next contract would require extensive reforms to allow the district meet its goals. The Commissioner also stated that it was a mistake not to make the terms of the contract public before it became final. This was a major departure from standard practice in both Providence and throughout Rhode Island, as every other contract to my knowledge goes through a 3-step process where a tentative agreement is negotiated privately, a union ratification is completed confidentially within the union, and then a public body (typically a City Council) reviews the contract publicly for final approval. The Commissioner stated (to my astonishment) that she was unaware of this common practice, despite having invested hundreds of hours of her time and over a million dollars of attorney’s fees, and that she would be sure not to make this mistake again. As I stated during the campaign, the teachers’ contract that the State negotiated was a major disappointment, and the State’s failure to make the terms of the contract public prior to final approval was a dereliction of duty. You can view this portion of the hearing by clicking on this link and advancing to the 1:47 (one hour, 47 minute) mark.
b. The Superintendent Search
The second example involves the currently stalled search for a new Superintendent. As you may remember, Harrison Peters began his tenure as Providence’s first turnaround superintendent in January 2020 only to have his contract terminated in May 2020 due to a scandal involving his poor decision to hire an administrator with a known record of harming students in Florida who did the same thing when he came to Providence. In the 21 months since, the position has not even been posted. (The District has hired a capable acting Superintendent; however, his temporary status has made it difficult if not impossible for him to lead.) In recent weeks, members of the Providence community have petitioned the School Board asking when the new search is going to begin, and whether it will feature greater community participation than did the first one.
The community has a point. Under standard practice, Providence normally follows the sequence of many (if not most) school district superintendent searches on a 9–12 month cycle. The search begins at the start of the school year, and concludes in the spring. The new superintendent begins work that summer to be ready to open the district for the new school year. Also, Providence’s normal superintendent search process involves extensive public outreach and participation, as presented in Providence Public Schools Policy 301 (also known as CBB). In light of this, a group of Providence General Assembly representatives sent this letter on Thursday to the Commissioner and the members of the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, urging the Commissioner to announce promptly a search that complies with the transparency guidelines of Policy 301/CBB. The letter states that the first search produced a poor result, and the subsequent failure to conduct a proper search over the past 21 months amounts to a dereliction of duty. The Commissioner has stated publicly that the process for the next search will be announced soon. I will be watching, and I will be ready to advocate for the next search to meet a higher standard (in both process and results) than the first one met.
These two examples demonstrate how the State takeover of the Providence Public Schools has mishandled the balance between the conflicting goals of removing bureaucratic inertia on the one hand and preserving accountability on the other. I agree that the Providence schools’ pre-takeover governance structure was fundamentally flawed; for example, the City Council interfered excessively (and my efforts to change that were not successful). In its zeal to remove bureaucratic inertia, the State’s takeover opted to collapse all authority and responsibility essentially into a single office. Through that structure, the State has committed fundamental and significant mistakes (hiring a failed superintendent and negotiating a weak contract), each of which involved a lack of transparency that constituted a serious and avoidable dereliction of duty. We do not know for sure whether either or both mistakes could have been avoided had there been greater transparency, oversight and accountability; however, we can say that the closed process that produced those decisions undermined the public’s ability to accept the failures that resulted.