September 23 Ward Letter

I hope you are enjoying this beautiful first weekend of Autumn.  This week’s letter discusses the School Department’s compliance with a Department of Justice investigation of its English Language Learner program, preparations for a possible school bus driver strike, and an upcoming community meeting to discuss regulation of AirBnB and student housing.

On Monday, September 24, 2018 at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall, Third Floor, the School Department Oversight Committee will meet to review, among other things, the School Department’s English Language Learner (ELL) program and a potential strike by school bus drivers.

During the summer, the School Department announced that it had reached a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ) concerning its program for English language learners (ELL).  It has been known for years that Rhode Island’s Hispanic students have the lowest performance on the national standardized tests, and the DOJ investigation highlighted many of the reasons why this is the case, including a significant deficit of qualified teachers.  The causes of this problem include a national shortage of qualified teachers and a State funding formula that does not provide adequate resources for this need.  When the General Assembly approved the current formula in 2010, I testified concerning this defect, and I repeated my concerns when the State reviewed the formula a few years ago.  This defect, which resulted from a political accommodation in 2010, makes Rhode Island’s formula an outlier nationally.  The DOJ settlement agreement calls for significant improvements without identifying a sustainable path to achieve them.  The School Department Oversight Committee will review the School Department’s plans asking, among other things, how the settlement will affect that Department’s overall program both for children learning the English language and the other children in the Providence Public Schools.

A vendor named First Student provides school bus service to Providence students, and it has reached an impasse with the Teamsters’ Union to which its bus drivers belong.  The bus drivers have taken a strike vote, and a strike is expected to begin Thursday, September 27.  The School Department Oversight Committee will ask the School Department to discuss its contingency plans publicly, and may enter executive session to inquire as to what legal remedies the School Department has when its vendor fails to provide the services it contracted to provide due to an internal problem, such as a strike by its bus drivers.

On Wednesday, October 10 at 6:00 p.m. at the Nathan Bishop Middle School Cafeteria, Councilwoman LaFortune, Ward 2 Democratic candidate Helen Anthony and I will co-host a neighborhood meeting to discuss efforts to regulate short-term rentals (such as AirBnb) and student housing in Providence.  Robert Azar, the Deputy Director of the Planning Department, will present the Department’s current thinking on both of these areas.

At a neighborhood meeting earlier this summer, Councilwoman Lafortune and I invited public comment concerning short-term rentals.  We learned that some of them had adverse neighborhood impacts, particularly where the property owner essentially served as an absentee landlord.  We also learned that AirBnB rentals help other Providence residents have reduced those impacts by renting out spare rooms while occupying the rest of their residence, or through careful screening of potential guests.  The Planning Department has been developing proposed legislation it will present to the City Plan Commission later this fall, and Mr. Azar will share the Department’s current thinking of how to enhance the benefits of short-term rentals while minimizing the adverse impacts.

Earlier this summer, the City Plan Commission organized a subcommittee to review regulation of student housing, following the discovery of a lease by a Providence landlord of a six-bedroom two-family house on College Hill to thirteen undergraduate students.  I introduced legislation the City Plan Commission endorsed that would place a 3-student limit on housing units in R-1 and R-1A zones (thus, a 2-family house could have a maximum of 3 students in each unit), while Councilman Yurdin introduced legislation I co-sponsored to place a limit of 4 undergraduate students in each unit in all zones, for which legislation Councilman Yurdin has withdrawn his support but which I still co-sponsor.  Neither measure has drawn broad support in the City Council.  The Planning Department is developing its own version that Mr. Azar will discuss at this meeting.  Please try to attend and share your ideas.


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