PROVIDENCE – Mayor Jorge Elorza says he is prepared to relinquish some control over the Providence school system as part of a broader state intervention in the struggling district, but he will not support a state takeover similar to the one that occurred in tiny Central Falls nearly 30 years ago.
In an interview with the Globe Tuesday, the Democratic mayor said he is convinced the state has “powers that the city just doesn’t have,” namely the ability to enact reforms that might conflict with the existing teachers’ union contract.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green is expected to present an intervention plan for Providence to the state Council on Elementary and Secondary Education later this month, and Elorza said he is still meeting with the commissioner and aides to Governor Gina Raimondo about next steps.
“It could mean potentially losing control, but having control isn’t what matters here,” Elorza said. “The only thing that matters is what’s best for our kids.”
Elorza said he is pursuing a “partnership” with the state that he says could become a model for urban school district interventions across the country. He said a years-long contract dispute with the city’s teachers’ union during his first term was a turning point for him, calling the end result – a new contract set to expire next year — “a lot of pain for very, very little gain.”
“I have come to the conclusion that the change that we need in our schools just can’t come from us,” Elorza said. “That was something that was difficult for me to accept.’’
A piercing report on Providence schools from researchers at Johns Hopkins University has rocked the district since it was released two weeks ago, prompting parents and some elected officials to call for the state to take control of Rhode Island’s largest school district.
The report found the district is plagued by abysmal test scores and a culture of low expectations for students, while fear of violence is common in the middle schools and high schools for both kids and adults. It also described deplorable conditions in schoolhouses across the city, with ceilings collapsing and rodent traps stuck to children’s shoes.
Elorza, now in his fifth year leading the capital city, was not spared in the report. Multiple officials interviewed by the researchers described him as someone who micro-manages the district by insisting on interviewing most non-union employees before they are hired. He also makes all appointments to the Providence School Board.
But Elorza has spent the weeks since the report was released repeatedly telling stakeholders he will not interfere with a state intervention in the district. At a public forum held at Asa Messer Elementary School last week, he vowed to be a partner in the overhaul, telling a room of more than 200 people control of school system “means absolutely zero to me.”
Dr. Kenneth Wong, an education policy researcher at Brown University, said he thinks Elorza is taking the right approach by showing he’s willing to give up some of his own power in order to improve the district. He said it’s not easy for a mayor to detach from the school system because it makes up more than half of the city’s budget.
“One interpretation is that he is sending a signal that he is willing to share responsibility,” Wong said. “Let’s come up with a plan with ownership from the key people.”
The details about how the state will intervene in Providence remain unclear, but Infante-Green is zeroing in on an existing state law that allows for a struggling school or district to be “reconstituted” by the state.
The state has never taken that action with an entire district – much less one with 24,000 students – but it did take over Providence’s Hope High School more than a decade ago. The school showed modest improvements over a short period, but it is now back under city control and remains one of the lowest-performing high schools in the state.
The state also took over the Central Falls school district in the early 1990s as part of an effort to stabilize the cash-strapped city’s finances, and it largely remains in control of that school department today. Central Falls is the only school system in the state with lower test scores than Providence.
“I would strongly oppose a state intervention that simply mimics what happened in Central Falls,” Elorza said. “Not only do I think that wouldn’t be productive, but I think it would be counterproductive.”
Among the questions Infante-Green will have to answer in the coming weeks are whether Providence’s next superintendent will report directly to her and how much ability she’ll have to terminate low-performing teachers, something that is nearly impossible within the existing union contract, according to the report.
Elorza confirmed he is also having discussions with the state about the role of the existing school board. He said he believes the board has been a “value add,” but acknowledged changes may be needed in order to streamline oversight of the district.
Even after the state releases its plan, Elorza is likely to continue to face scrutiny over his handling of the school system.
At a forum last week, state Sen. Ana Quezada, a Providence Democrat who works for the city, confronted Elorza to say he is “responsible” for the district’s problems.
Meanwhile, Providence Bishop Thomas J. Tobin took to Twitter Tuesday to encourage city residents to consider Catholic schools as “a viable alternative” to sending their children to public school. And officials at a tiny private elementary school in Rehoboth sponsored a Facebook post to inform Providence parents of openings for students.
Wong, the professor from Brown, said Elorza and the state need to move fast on whatever reforms they settle on.
“They have to turn around something in a short period of time to send a message that this is a new era,” Wong said. “If they really want to leave a legacy, here is the moment.”