PROVIDENCE – Faced with a $10 million deficit, Rhode Island College plans to close the $12,000-a-year elementary school that operates on its campus, lay off workers, and force executives to take pay cuts of up to 10 percent.
In an interview Thursday, college President Frank Sanchez said the college is facing a 10 percent decline in enrollment as it prepares for the fall semester, leaving the school with about 6,300 undergraduate and graduate students.
Sanchez said a large chunk of the commuter college’s projected shortfall can be attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, although he acknowledged that enrollment has been a challenge for several years.
“The pandemic and its unprecedented impacts have triggered one of the biggest fiscal challenges in Rhode Island College’s 166-year history,” Sanchez said in a prepared statement. He is reducing his $274,000 annual salary by 10 percent.
The decision to close the Henry Barnard School after the upcoming school year is already drawing criticism from Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, who said he is “extremely disappointed.”
“This will certainly have a negative impact on students and their parents as they head into what’s sure to be an already difficult school year,” Ruggerio said in a prepared statement. “I will be reaching out to Governor Gina Raimondo and Speaker Nicholas Mattiello to see what we can do to keep this 120-year-old laboratory school operating into the future.”
The state is facing a $600 million shortfall in the current fiscal year, so it’s unclear if the General Assembly will have the ability to provide additional funding to the college.
Named after Rhode Island’s first education commissioner, the Henry Barnard School serves 150 students between pre-kindergarten and fifth grade, and costs $12,000 to $16,000 a year. By comparison, in-state tuition at the college is just over $10,000 a year.
The elementary school has repeatedly run small deficits over the years, but the shortfall for the 2021-22 fiscal year is projected to be $2 million, according to interim provost Sue Pearlmutter. She said the college explored converting Henry Barnard School into a charter school, but it wasn’t feasible.
Aside from the college’s financial challenges, Pearlmutter said the Henry Barnard School’s mission no longer aligns with the goals of the college, which is known as a teachers college and is focused on training teachers to work in diverse districts across the state. For example, she said, English is the first language of every student at Henry Barnard; by comparison, roughly 30 percent of students in Providence public schools speak English as a second language.
Henry Barnard has been on the chopping block in the college’s budget in previous years, but the school has always survived. Rumors have circulated for months that the school might close its doors, leading parents of students at the school to organize in hopes that they could keep it open.
Scott Bromberg, who has two children at the school, said the college is placing the elementary school at the bottom of the college’s to-do list.
“This announcement is terrible timing,” Bromberg said. “During a pandemic that already has placed so much stress on young children across the state, they throw this curveball. Every child in Rhode Island is coping with disrupted schedules, a lack of sports and outside activities, online learning, no contact with friends, and now they are learning of their school – a place they hold dear – closing.”
Sanchez acknowledged that closing the elementary school was a painful decision, but said the college had to find cuts to balance its budget. He said layoffs are likely to be announced next month, although he didn’t say exactly how many jobs could be lost.
While dozens of smaller colleges around the country have been forced to close or consolidate in recent years, Sanchez said he’s confident that Rhode Island College is not in danger of shutting its doors.
Tim DelGiudice, chairman of the state Council on Postsecondary Education, said his council “fully supports the bold action taken by President Sanchez,” noting that the college’s goal is to make a high-quality education affordable for more residents.
“These are extraordinary times, and neither the administration at Rhode Island College nor the council takes these decisions lightly,” DelGiudice said.