PROVIDENCE — How did this happen?
From Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to members of the Providence City Council, officials are questioning who gave the city’s school department the authority to spend $187,000 on inspirational books from a self-published author last month.
Interim Superintendent Frances Gallo ordered the department to purchase 16,510 copies of “Shoot Your Shot: A Sport-Inspired Guide To Living Your Best Life,” one for every middle and high school student in the district to read, but she later backed off the requirement after receiving complaints from teachers that the book had religious overtones.
While the fallout from Gallo’s decision to ask teachers to “pause” their use of the book has largely focused on whether it was appropriate for students to be reading it in school, the purchase itself has alarmed critics, who say someone in the school department should have blocked such a large expenditure.
Councilman David Salvatore said, the “unfortunate situation clearly demonstrates the breakdown in communication within the district’s existing governance structure.”
“While I do believe that the superintendent’s actions were well intentioned, the first quarter of the fiscal year isn’t complete, and the school district may be running deficit due to an expense that wasn’t budgeted,” Salvatore said.
Infante-Green, who is in the process of taking control of Providence schools, said she wasn’t aware that the district spent as much money as it did on the books. She said her office also wasn’t told that Gallo asked teachers to stop using the book until she read about it in the Globe.
“It’s painful,” she said. “That hurt. It hurt.”
Gallo said she discovered the book, published by Vernon Brundage Jr., while searching Amazon for a quick read that would have universal appeal to students. She said she read the book herself and read approximately 100 reviews of it on Amazon, BookAuthority, and Goodreads.
Brundage’s book uses the stories of how multiple professional basketball players have overcome adversity in their lives to encourage readers to persevere when they encounter challenges in lives. But teachers contacted Gallo to explain that they were concerned with several religious references in the book.
“Be cognizant of when it is time to relinquish control, to let go, and to just leave it in God’s hands,” Brundage writes in one passage. “Don’t waste away years of your life clinging to something that no longer fully represents you. Lean on your faith, knowing that God will not forsake you and that something greater is in store for you.”
Brundage works full time for the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C., but he calls himself an entrepreneur, economist, author, and speaker on his personal website. He’s also the founder of a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.
He published “Shoot Your Shot” last year, but it’s unclear how many copies were sold before Gallo ordered 16,510 books. Maryland business filings show Brundage didn’t establish “Shoot Your Shot Globe Enterprises,” the company Providence paid for the books, until Aug. 15.
Brundage has not responded to multiple requests for comment. His government e-mail address included an out-of-office reply last week.
Reached Thursday, school department spokesperson Emily Martineau said Gallo was not aware that Brundage’s business did not exist prior to the city’s purchase.
Providence officials have come under fire this summer after a report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University claimed the city’s purchasing process was overly burdensome, with most contracts worth more than $5,000 required to be approved by the City Council and the School Board.
But the decision to spend $187,000 on Brundage’s book did not require approval because it came out of the department’s $1.5 million budget for educational supplies, according to School Board Vice President Nina Pande.
Pande said the board believes the district should have a streamlined process for expenditures from that account, which typically include curriculum-related books from companies like McGraw-Hill or Scholastic.
“It’s our way of untying or undoing this kind of bureaucracy for principals and superintendents,” Pande said
Providence’s school budget is nearing $400 million, but city leaders have complained for years that spending on salaries, pensions, and health benefits for teachers and retirees have outpaced increases in state aid. To close annual budget gaps, district leaders have been forced to postpone spending on technology and cut funding to nonprofits that support district.
Infante-Green said the state has hired to accounting firm Ernst & Young to conduct a full financial review of the district. The Partnership for Rhode Island, a business group, is paying $300,000 for the analysis. The state takeover is expected to take effect in October.
Gallo has said it was teacher complaints that prompted her to abandon a play to require students to read “Shoot Your Shot,” but School Board President Nicholas Hemond said he ordered her to remove the books. He said he feared the district would face a lawsuit for mandating that students a book with religious references.
“In my opinion, the oversight system worked in this case,” Hemond said. “We saved the district much more money by not getting into lawsuits.”