PROVIDENCE — City leaders are considering giving a charter school permission to operate out of a Providence school building for up to 40 years, part of a lease deal that has caused consternation among parents, teachers and some city councilors.
The potential deal for Achievement First, a multi-state charter system with several schools in Rhode Island, may not be the only one this year. Two other Providence schools are shutting down this month, which would free up their buildings for potential use by other charters.
The lease for Achievement First would allow Promesa Elementary School to continue using the former Charles M. Fortes Elementary School building in the city’s West End for the next 20 years, with the option to extend the agreement to 40 years.
The lease deal, negotiated by Mayor Brett Smiley’s administration, comes after former Mayor Jorge Elorza allowed Achievement First to move into the school in 2021 without public or City Council involvement, negotiating a “licensing agreement” rather than a regular lease. The unusual arrangement avoided any requirement for City Council approval.
Teachers at the time said they were unceremoniously kicked out of their classrooms, with some of their items even piled in a gymnasium. The students and teachers at Fortes were moved to Alfred Lima Elementary School, which is an attached building.
That licensing deal is now set to expire June 30. But the new long-term lease, which would charge Achievement First just $1 in annual rent, is not sitting well with some on the City Council, which is being asked to approve the deal.
“It’s irresponsible,” said Councilor Justin Roias, referring to the lease’s length. “The education landscape in Providence has changed so much just in three years. We can’t predict what our landscape is going to look like in 20 years, never mind 40 years.”
The lease agreement says the city would need to give Achievement First three years notice to reclaim the school for the Providence Public School District, and would also need to repay the charter school for improvements, and find the school a new space.
The lease was approved by the council’s Ordinance Committee last week in a tight 3-to-2 vote, but was not put on the docket for a full council vote at its regular meeting Thursday night.
Asked why the vote was postponed, council spokesperson Parker Gavigan said the council and the mayor are in talks with Achievement First about possible changes, and it will likely be on the docket at a special meeting next week.
Achievement First argues a long-term lease allows them to put up the funds for repairs and improvements to the school that they cannot do without assurances that they will continue to be able to use the building. And with the clock ticking on the June 30 deadline, spokesperson Jillian Fain said there is no backup plan for where hundreds of students will learn next school year.
“Securing school facilities for our students remains an enormous challenge in Providence,” Fain said. “The Fortes building has been AF Promesa Elementary’s home for the past two years, and we are hopeful the City Council will allow this to become our long-term home for our students and families. If the lease is not secured, it would be extremely challenging to find an alternative space to house our students, this fall.”
Fain said the school has 372 students now in grades K-3, but is planning to serve 465 students in grades K-4 in the fall. Not all the students are from Providence, but Fain said 85 percent of the students live in the city.
Fain said Achievement First would make repairs to the parking lot, classrooms, corridors, and plumbing, and would build a playground if the lease is approved. The mayor’s office did not immediately provide details on how much the city would continue to spend on upkeep to the building.
Councilman Pedro Espinal, the chair of the Ordinance Committee, said he voted to send the lease to the floor because of the hundreds of students that would be affected without an agreement.
Council President Rachel Miller declined to share an opinion on the lease agreement.
Asked why the city didn’t bring a proposal to the council sooner, averting a deadline crunch, Smiley said it took months for his administration to research the old agreement and negotiate a new lease with Achievement First. (Smiley took office in January.)
“We decided to do what we think is the right thing, which is to actually negotiate a lease and send it to the City Council,” Smiley said. “They have moved in, they’re good tenants, and I’m confident they will continue to provide a good education to the students.”
The Providence Teachers Union has opposed the deal, which they argue displaced students from their classrooms at Fortes.
“We disrupted Providence public school kids and brought in a big-box charter,” said Maribeth Calabro, the president of the union.
More charter schools could set up shop in Providence school buildings
Promesa is not the first charter school to move into a Providence public school building, and it is unlikely to be the last.
The R.I. Department of Education, which currently controls the Providence school district under a state takeover, is shutting down Alan Shawn Feinstein at Broad Street and Carl G. Lauro Elementary Schools later this month, a controversial decision they said was based on the schools’ physical conditions and dwindling enrollment.
More than 700 children attend the two schools combined. The students — other than those graduating to middle school — are being split between 19 different elementary schools this fall.
The school buildings are still owned by the city, and Smiley confirmed to the Globe he is interested in allowing charter schools to use the buildings once they are empty.
“Charter schools are public schools,” Smiley said. “These are public school buildings, and we have declining enrollment in the traditional public school system. And we have charter schools with a wait list with families who desperately want their kids to get a seat in one of those schools.”
He said there was “tremendous interest” from a variety of charter schools interested in the buildings, and he said the city would put out a request for proposals for potential uses of the buildings. Achievement First declined to comment on whether they would seek to lease one of the available elementary school buildings.
“We have not made any commitments on the spaces,” Smiley said.
Parents and teachers at the two schools had immediately questioned whether they were being displaced in favor of charter schools back in December, when the state’s decision to close the schools was first disclosed.
Families at the Broad Street school unsuccessfully fought to keep their school open, pointing out it was the only neighborhood school in Washington Park, a close-knit, predominantly Latino neighborhood in the south side of Providence.
Katelyn Crudale, the president of the Parent Teacher Organization at the Broad Street school, said her three children may be split up next year; one is expected to attend Robert L. Bailey Elementary and two are enrolled at Lillian Feinstein Elementary at Sackett Street, despite her request to keep them together.
She said she was “disgusted” that other students could potentially be moved into the school her children are being forced to leave.
“So you’re going to have a school in the center of the community that the community can’t go to,” Crudale said.
While charter schools are publicly funded, they are not available to all students. Their limited number of seats are filled using a lottery system, and the nonprofit organizations running the charters have more autonomy than traditional public school districts, which must accept and serve all students in a community.
“Public schools educate everyone who comes through our doors,” Calabro said. “We don’t have a lottery, we don’t have an application process.”
But charters have increasingly become popular among parents who want an alternative to traditional public schools, especially if their child attends a poor-performing school.
“So if we can make sure that they continue to achieve good results and perform academically and provide them the space to grow, I’m going to try to do so,” Smiley said.
Crudale also questioned why officials used the building’s condition as an argument to close the school.
“If it’s so bad for kids to be in there, then why are they trying to reopen it to another school to have other kids go there?” she asked.
Jay Wegimont, a spokesperson for the state-run Providence Public Schools, said there were other factors outside of the building conditions that went into the decision to close the schools, including declining enrollment and a lack of green space. But he did not comment on the fact that the buildings could end up hosting charter schools anyway, deferring to the city as the buildings’ owner.
Wegimont also pointed to the overall long-term facilities plan, which includes building new K-8 schools for the first time, and renovating schools to be “like-new.”
“With this plan, Providence Public Schools will welcome students to more new and like-new schools this fall,” Wegimont said, including Spaziano Elementary School, a new building that started construction last year, as well as recently renovated D’Abate Elementary School and the Narducci Learning Center.
Smiley said any charter school would likely be responsible for making repairs before moving in to the vacant school buildings.