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RI EDUCATION

After COVID-19, incoming governor McKee is inheriting another challenge: the state takeover of Providence schools

Rhode Island's lieutenant governor, Daniel J. McKee, is about to take the stage as governor, and he will immediately be confronted with the problem of progress on the turnaround of Providence public schools.
Rhode Island's lieutenant governor, Daniel J. McKee, is about to take the stage as governor, and he will immediately be confronted with the problem of progress on the turnaround of Providence public schools.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — When Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee is finally sworn in as Rhode Island’s 76th governor, his focus will be on improving the state’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution, trying to avoid another spike in positive cases, and fully reopening the economy.

But before he has time to catch his breath, he’ll also become the face of another controversial issue that has had a turbulent rollout and carries all kinds of political implications as he heads into his 2022 reelection campaign: the Providence school takeover.

The state is only in year two of an intervention in Providence that Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has said will last at least five years — and probably far longer. And officials brag that in the past 15 months, they have laid a strong foundation for success.

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But there is vexing issue bedeviling the turnaround effort that will ensnare McKee on day one: the state’s failure to negotiate a contract with the school system’s powerful teachers’ union.

Whether he wants to or not, observers say McKee is going to play a major role when it comes to achieving labor peace and helping turn around the state’s largest school system, all while he navigates a Democratic primary field that will probably include several challengers.

“He’s inheriting this from [Governor Gina Raimondo], but he’ll have to work through it,” said Joe Fleming, a pollster and political analyst for WPRI-TV.

The state takeover was always going to outlast Raimondo’s tenure in office, although her decision to join President Joe Biden’s administration as Commerce secretary has expedited her departure from office. She could be confirmed by the US Senate as soon as this week.

But it was Raimondo who decided to rip the Band-Aid off Providence’s struggling school system in 2019 after years of keeping her distance on the issue. With little to worry about politically — she had already won a second and final term as governor — Raimondo hired Infante-Green from New York and supported the effort to bring in a team of experts from Johns Hopkins University to conduct a review of the city’s schools.

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Raimondo and Infante-Green used the scathing report from Johns Hopkins to justify the takeover in Providence, but Mayor Jorge Elorza has said he talked privately with the governor about an intervention early in 2019. She was also nudged along by one of her top aides, Kevin Gallagher, a one-time Teach for America member who has long supported school reform efforts.

The takeover faced little resistance and took effect on Nov. 1, 2019, but it hit several bumps during its first year, most notably the pandemic. Behind the scenes, Gallagher and Infante-Green have been negotiating a new contract with the Providence Teachers Union since their agreement expired Aug. 31.

In November, Infante-Green warned that “something drastic” would happen if a deal couldn’t be reached with the teachers, but the deadline came and went. While the legal bills have piled up, the two sides haven’t met since Feb. 4, although they have another negotiating session on Feb. 22.

“Currently, we are still at the table negotiating,” said Infante-Green in a statement. “We are hopeful that we will be able to come to terms on a contract that supports every teacher and student in every Providence school. That’s something that is a common goal of both parties and, I would imagine, a top priority for everyone.”

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Raimondo isn’t the only one leaving with the Providence takeover stuck in neutral, however.

Gallagher, her senior deputy chief of staff, announced his resignation on Friday. He is expected to be one of the few staffers joining her in Washington, D.C., but he has declined to comment.

From his perch in the governor’s administration, Gallagher has had a central role in the takeover and has functioned as a liaison between Infante-Green and Raimondo. It’s unclear who will fill those shoes once McKee is sworn in.

Although not every governor has an education point person, McKee would be wise to find a replacement for Gallagher, according to Julia Rafal-Baer, chief operating officer for Chiefs for Change, an organization that helps school leaders become district superintendents and state education commissioners.

“Given the particular moment that we’re in, we know that education is one of the most important equity issues that we are all going to be dealing with,” said Rafal-Baer. “I would hope that the governor would continue to have an education point person in his office.”

Chiefs for Change helped both Infante-Green and Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters secure their jobs in Rhode Island, and the organization’s CEO, Michael Magee, was on McKee’s staff when he was mayor of Cumberland.

Even the Providence Teachers Union is waiting to see the state’s next steps.

Maribeth Calabro, the president of the union, said Gallagher has attended almost every negotiation session, and his departure leaves things in flux. She has been critical of the state’s strategy in negotiations, suggesting that Infante-Green and Gallagher were seeking what is commonly referred to as a “thin contract,” which would define only salaries, benefits, and working conditions. The union has long worked under a more comprehensive contract, which can include everything from bell times to the number of minutes in the school day.

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“[Kevin] told us he was leaving, but there was no plan disclosed as to what would happen once he did,” Calabro said.

A spokeswoman for McKee said the incoming governor will review education priorities once he takes office. He is widely expected to retain Infante-Green, who is under contract until April 28, 2022.

Fleming, the pollster who once worked as an advisor to McKee during a Cumberland mayoral race, said the new governor is known as an education reformer, in large part due to his support for charter schools. But he said that McKee also knows the teachers’ unions will play a crucial role in next year’s Democratic primary.

“It seems like up to this point, he’s been playing nice with the unions,” Fleming said. “You don’t want them out there working against you in 2022.”


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.