PROVIDENCE – More than a year into the state takeover of Providence’s struggling school system, there’s at least one group making out pretty well: lawyers.
Combined, the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Providence School Department have paid their outside legal counsel more than $1 million since June 2019, mostly for contract negotiations with the Providence Teachers Union that Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green described as going “nowhere” last month.
Records obtained by the Globe show that Adler Pollock & Sheehan was paid $204,746 to help the state navigate the legal process of taking control of Providence’s schools in 2019, and has so far received $899,704 for negotiating the union contract that expired in August. Those negotiations are ongoing, and union president Maribeth Calabro said another meeting is scheduled for Thursday.
Infante-Green has made it clear that she believes an overhaul of the union contract is the only chance the state has to turn around the city’s schools, which are plagued by poor test scores, crumbling buildings, and increasingly low morale among teachers and students. But the lack of progress on negotiations to date has largely stalled the rest of the takeover, leaving district leaders to set ambitious goals that they believe can only be reached by securing a more management-friendly agreement.
All the while, the COVID-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the lives of students and teachers since last March, with families struggling to adjust to remote learning and in-person learning being interrupted by high quarantine rates among children and educators.
“As you know, the previous contract is long, complicated and presents its own obstacles to the lasting change that the Providence community deserves,” said Emily Crowell, a spokeswoman for Infante-Green. “While the commissioner has expressed frustration with the pace of negotiations, her top priority has not changed and that is building a better education system for Providence students of today and for generations of children who will come after them.”
While both the Department of Education and the Providence School Department employ in-house attorneys, it is not uncommon for government entities to hire outside counsel to handle complicated legal matters – and the state takeover was as complex as it gets.
The state has long controlled the tiny school system in Central Falls, but intervening in Providence with its $400 million budget, 24,000 students, and several thousand employees, was unprecedented.
The first step was handled with the precision of political campaign, as Infante-Green and Governor Gina Raimondo used a scathing report on the school district from researchers at Johns Hopkins University to build public support for the takeover. Infante-Green, a no-nonsense New Yorker who once compared Providence schools to “the South Bronx in the 1980s,” won praise from parents for leading the charge. And few officials challenged her.
Meanwhile, the Raimondo administration brought in lawyers from Adler Pollock & Sheehan because the firm is widely considered one of the best in the state. They helped the state invoke what is known as the Crowley Act, which gives the state sweeping – but largely untested – powers to overhaul a school system. After the stake took control of the district, the firm was kept on to begin negotiating the union contract.
The state refused to disclose the legal bills themselves, but two contracts that were executed with Adler Pollock & Sheehan show the firm normally bills between $150 and $625 per hour, but agreed to a blended rate that ranges from $110 to $325 per hour. For contract negotiations, the Providence School Department is picking up the tab.
What’s happening during those negotiations is less clear.
Infante-Green said last month that she is giving the teachers until Jan. 1 to make headway on a contract, or the state will do “something drastic.” She did not offer specifics, but the threat suggests that the state may make unilateral changes to the contract. Mayor Jorge Elorza has cited the state’s power to alter the contract as the key reason he supported the takeover.
Crowell said contract negotiations are led by Robert Brooks, a managing partner at the firm who has deep experience with labor relations. He attends all negotiations with Infante-Green, “which are typically scheduled twice a week for hours at a time.” Other attendees representing the state in those meetings have included Kevin Gallagher, a top aide to Raimondo, Department of Education attorney Anthony Cottone, and Providence School Department attorney Charles Ruggerio.
Calabro, whose union is represented by former House Majority Leader John DeSimone, said she was “shocked” by the amount of money that has been spent by the state, considering how little progress has been made.
“A million dollars buys a lot of books, a lot of Chromebooks,” Calabro said.
Calabro said that the state has been seeking what is commonly referred to as a “thin contract,” which would define salaries, benefits, and working conditions, but include little else. The union has long worked under a thicker contract, which can include everything bell times to the number of
minutes in the school day.
Beginning Thursday, Calabro said the two sides are planning to “change course” to focus on big picture topics in the contract, but she conceded that it is likely they’ll end up in mediation or a court room.
“If this redirection doesn’t change things and be a catalyst for more fruitful negotiations, then we’re going to have to have a conversation,” Calabro said.
And the bills continue to pile up, with little oversight. Neither the Providence School Board or the Providence City Council have the authority to question spending on attorneys, and the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education has left decisions on Providence in the hands of Infante-Green.
The “lack of checks and balances” is alarming, according to City Councilman John Igliozzi, whose Finance Committee would have the power to raise questions about school department spending if the state hadn’t taken over.
He said he fears that Providence may eventually be forced to raise taxes to pay for the takeover because the school department still receives more than $130 million a year from the city budget.
“The problem is they’re just spending money and just sending a bill to Providence,” Igliozzi said. “There’s no sense of reality. Where do they think we’re going to get this money?”
Igliozzi predicted the legal bills will continue to pile up because he believes the state will attempt to make unilateral changes to the contract, which is likely end up in the courts. He stressed that he believes that any blame for what he sees as excessive spending should be placed on the state.
“It’s not the attorney, it’s the client,” Igliozzi said.