PROVIDENCE — When Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green formally took control of Providence’s struggling school system last Friday, she said she hoped students and teachers wouldn’t notice much of a difference from the change in leadership.
At least not right away.
“We don’t want to disrupt what’s happening,” Infante-Green told reporters. “We want things to continue for right now.”
But behind the scenes, Infante-Green — and the person who she ultimately selects to be the district’s turnaround superintendent — has assumed control over every facet of Providence schools, right down to the decision of canceling school during a snowstorm.
A collaboration agreement that was signed by Mayor Jorge Elorza and Infante-Green shows the state will oversee the department’s nearly $400 million budget, handle all contract negotiations — including upcoming talks with the Providence Teachers Union, whose deal expires Aug. 31, 2020 — and will make the final decision on a plan for improving the district’s schools.
In exchange, Infante-Green agreed to consult with Elorza, the City Council, and the Providence School Board on developing a turnaround plan and then issue an annual report to update city leaders. The city will also maintain ownership of all of its school buildings, but officials are required to consult with the state if they seek to borrow funds for new construction projects.
“We’re going from hope to results, very quickly,” Infante-Green said. “This is about us all working together.”
Read the entire agreement below:
It remains unclear when Infante-Green will unveil a full, formal turnaround plan for the Providence schools, home to 24,000 students.
Infante-Green has been Rhode Island’s education commissioner for only seven months, but she moved quickly to intervene in Providence, the state’s largest school district. The decision to take control of the capital city’s school department was made after researchers from Johns Hopkins University said the district was among the most dysfunctional school systems they had ever reviewed.
In addition to crumbling school buildings and low morale among teachers, results on last year’s Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam show only 17 percent of Providence students in grades three through eight are proficient in English, and 12 percent are doing math at grade level.
Although Infante-Green’s decision to take over the district was met with little opposition, the state has so far released few details about its plan other than that the intervention will last at least five years.
The collaboration agreement between the city and state says that Providence officials will be required to boost the city’s annual contribution to the school department at the same percentage that the state increases its annual allocation to the city. In the current school year, the city will set aside $128.5 million.
A spokesperson for Elorza confirmed the city may be forced to increase funding for the school system but declined to comment further. In past years, the city has been required to maintain the same level of school funding as in the previous fiscal year, but there was no mandate for it to provide additional funding each year.
If the district goes over budget — a rare occurrence in recent years — the state is required to pick up the tab, according to the agreement.
Infante-Green has also decided to keep the current nine-member, mayoral-appointed school board in place until at least Dec. 31. The board will now report to the commissioner, but it will continue to oversee grievances and other employee-related decisions.
“She has the ultimate authority, but instead of us being an advisory board that informs the decision making of the mayor and the council, we’re an advisory committee working in collaboration with the commissioner,” School Board president Nicholas Hemond said.
When it comes to the teachers’ union contract, Providence Teachers Union president Maribeth Calabro has repeatedly said she would prefer to negotiate a new deal with Infante-Green over Elorza.
The union went the entire 2017-18 school year without a contract as Elorza sought concessions, ultimately leading teachers to work-to-rule at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. The two sides ultimately struck a deal that resulted in minimal changes to the union contract.
Calabro said she had a productive conversation with Infante-Green last week, and she hopes to begin negotiations in the coming weeks.
“We have work to do and we all know it,” Calabro said. “So I don’t think having [a] protracted contract dispute is on anyone’s agenda.”
Before making any final decisions about the district’s turnaround plan, Infante-Green said she wants to hire a superintendent and hold public forums with parents and other stakeholders. She also said the state is still waiting for the results of a financial review of the school system.
Although Infante-Green said there wouldn’t be immediate changes at the schools, she said she expects teachers and administrators to begin developing stronger relationships with the families of students in the city.
She said she intends to show up at school unannounced to check in on classrooms, and she expects school leaders to know their data, including test scores and attendance rates. But she stressed she wants to have a culture of “accountability with support.”
“If you’re doing your job, you’re OK,” she said. “But you’re going to do your job.”