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How to save the Providence school takeover

The Providence School Department headquarters  in Providence.
The Providence School Department headquarters in Providence.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

With Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters on the way out the door, there’s growing momentum for the state takeover of the school district to be tossed out along with him.

Peters showed colossally poor judgement last year when he decided to hire, without informing Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and others, an administrator who he knew had been accused of inappropriately touching the toes of high school boys in Florida.

While the administrator, Olayinka Alege, was never charged in the Florida incidents, he was charged with assault last week for allegedly forcibly massaging the foot of a teenage boy at a Warwick gym without the teenager’s consent. Peters apologized Monday for hiring Alege, but his fate was already sealed.

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There is no chance that he could regain the trust of the community – Monday’s Senate oversight committee hearing pretty much confirmed that – and so he has to go. The only question now is how much the district will pay him to go away – and yes, he will be getting a severance package.

But for those who consistently treat education like a political chessboard, it seems, accountability isn’t enough. Instead, some of our elected officials are putting forward absurd solutions.

We can’t go back to the way things were pre-takeover, even if the pandemic hadn’t interrupted the first two years of the process. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s suggestion during her visit to Providence Wednesday – that we move to an elected school board – is interesting, except that the elected City Council’s oversight of the school department for the last several decades is part of what created the need for a state takeover to begin with.

And firing Infante-Green will cause other problems almost immediately. In a district where 91 percent of students are children of color, it’s not a great look to blame the Latina leader who has been on the job for two years for something she didn’t do.

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There’s an obvious temporary solution for Providence schools right now, but it’s also the most difficult one for politicians to swallow.

Let Peters go. Then: Do nothing. Just for a little while. Just long enough to avoid the temptation of proposing change for the sake of change.

Just until everyone involved – the Providence Teachers Union, Infante-Green, Governor McKee, and most importantly, the General Assembly – has calmed down enough to focus on setting a few new, realistic goals.

A teachers’ union contract must be completed before the first day of school. A permanent superintendent needs to be in place before children walk through those school doors. All of the academic goals that the district set last year, during the pandemic, need to be revised to acknowledge the reality of how the pandemic affected education.

That’s where some oversight might help.

Governor McKee could ask the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education to create a Providence subcommittee and hold public meetings that include monthly updates on the progress of the state takeover. Or maybe Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Lou DiPalma could take the lead and hold meaningful hearings – not gotcha sessions – throughout the summer on the school system.

Whatever we do, we can’t forget why the state takeover was needed in the first place. Generations of children were failed by adults. There is nothing that suggests giving the schools back to Providence would change that.

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If the two sides can’t make progress this summer, McKee needs to show that he’s willing to rip up the teachers’ union contract and go to court over the changes the state wants. Similarly, if Infante-Green is unwilling to budge, McKee should make it clear that he’s willing to find a commissioner who will look for common ground.

Peters will not be remembered as the transformative school leader that he wanted to be in Providence, but one of his favorite sayings was on the money: “Change happens at the speed of trust.”

There is very little trust anywhere in Providence education right now. That has to change before anything else.


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