Behind Closed Doors: The Forces Tearing Apart Public Education in Providence

The closure of Alan Shawn Feinstein (ASF) Elementary at Broad Street in Providence raises concerns about community marginalization, planned disinvestment, and the dismantling of public education. The decision to close the school, which allegedly resulted from declining student enrollment and building conditions, is seen by many as a ploy to pave the way for a charter school. The lack of public input and the defunding of multiple schools point to systemic issues undermining community engagement and the future of public education.

Rhode Island News: Behind Closed Doors: The Forces Tearing Apart Public Education in Providence

July 6, 2023, 9:50 am

By Maya Chavez

The recent closure of Alan Shawn Feinstein (ASF) Elementary at Broad Street means that 279 students, whose lives were already profoundly disrupted by the pandemic, will face further disruption as they are forced to transfer to other schools across the district this fall. Although Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) and Providence Public School District (PPSD) officials insist that the school was closing due in part to the physical condition of the building and the alleged lack of available green space, before the school year had even ended, Mayor Brett Smiley had already begun making plans to hand the building over to a charter school.

The other reason state and district officials cited for closing the school was declining student enrollment, which the opening of a charter will likely only worsen. As Providence Schools Deputy Superintendent Zack Scott has repeatedly noted, charter schools directly impact enrollment in the Providence district. When public schools lose students, they lose funding, which is how charter schools drain resources from public school districts.

While charter advocates, such as Mayor Smiley, claim that “charter schools are public schools, they conveniently ignore the fact that although charter schools take public money, they aren’t available to all students and aren’t subject to the same legal requirements as traditional public schools. If the city moves forward with the Mayor’s plan to replace Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary with a charter school, it will mean that the 279 students who attended ASF had their lives completely disrupted for the sake of opening a charter school that they may not be able to attend, even if they wanted to.

The closure of Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary at Broad Street is about more than the loss of a single school and the disruption that will cause to 279 students, their families, educators, and community—it’s about community marginalization, planned disinvestment, and the dismantling of public education.

Part 1: Community Marginalization

The lack of public input into the decision to defund sixteen schools and to ultimately close three public schools in Providence is deeply concerning. Families, students, educators, and community members had no say in the decision to close Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary, Carl G. Lauro Elementary, and Gilbert Stuart Middle School. Officials from RIDE and PPSD have acknowledged that they didn’t meet with the school communities until after officials had already decided to close the schools.

For their part, members of the Broad Street school community fought incredibly hard to save the school. They spoke up at RIDE meetings, shared comments at school board meetings, organized protests, talked to reporters, held community meetings, met with elected officials, sent emails to the General Assembly, attended city council meetings, advocated at the state house, voiced their concerns on social media, and made their argument public in an open letter to RIDE.

However, PPSD and RIDE leaders were unreceptive to these efforts and refused to meet with the school community. When community members interrupted a K-12 council meeting to voice their concerns about the school closure, a RIDE official called security, and another staff member turned off the livestream of the meeting. At a school board meeting in March, Latrice Suriel, an Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary parent, recorded RIDE officials walking out of the meeting before hearing public comment from ASF families, educators, and community members who had been waiting for hours to speak out against the closure of their school.

Michelle Miller, another Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary parent, Tweeted, “The @asf_school thriving school community were lied to, marginalized disrespected and ignored for six months when we tried to speak up again and again in defense of the only neighborhood school in Washington Park.

Even after elected officials, including Representative José Batista, Representative Enrique Sanchez, Representative Davis Morales, Senator Tiara Mack, as well as several school board members, called on RIDE to halt the closure of Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary, the state-run district moved forward with closing the school. RIDE and PPSD marginalized the community, so that a charter school could displace it.

Part 2: Planned Disinvestment

While the Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary at Broad Street community had only about six months’ notice that their school would close, the decision to defund the school, which apparently directly contributed to its closure, was made years earlier.

In the 2019 Memorandum of Agreement for School Construction, ASF Elementary was set to get $4.4 million for projects to be completed by 2024. However, in the 2021 Memorandum of Agreement, ASF’s funding was reduced to $2.9 million. In 2023, it was cut to just $1.7 million.

D efunding ASF had apparently disastrous consequences for the physical condition of the school. In 2017, Jacobs assessed every public school in Rhode Island and calculated a facilities condition index (FCI) for each building. An FCI over 65 indicates that it is no longer cost effective to repair the building. In 2017, ASF Elementary had an FCI of 59.26%, meaning it was still cost effective to repair. In 2022, Downes Construction, a Connecticut-based company, calculated new FCIs for Providence Schools. After years of cuts to school construction funding for ASF Elementary, the school’s FCI increased from 59.26% in 2017 to a whopping 97.32% just five years later.

PPSD and RIDE officials subsequently pointed to ASF’s high FCI to justify closing the school. However, as the organizing committee to save Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary at Broad Street explains, “the condition of the building is the direct result of planned disinvestment in the school.” Additionally, if the physical condition of the ASF Elementary building is as poor as Downes Construction claims, one can’t help but wonder why there are charter schools already lining up for a chance to take over the building.

ASF Elementary was not alone in being defunded. Across the district, there are sixteen schools that experienced major cuts to school construction funding between 2019 and 2023. In addition to ASF, the list of defunded schools includes Carl G. Lauro Elementary, which also closed last month, and Gilbert Stuart Middle School, which the state-run district also plans to close. The total construction funding cuts to these sixteen schools is over $136 million.

Slashing construction funding for sixteen schools made it possible to take on massive construction projects at six school sites, which have a total cost of roughly $110 million. The redistribution of funds from some schools to fund major construction projects at others seems to have been proposed by Downes Construction at an August 2021 meeting of the Providence School Building Committee. Although state law requires that the meeting minutes of a public body be filed within 35 days, the minutes from this meeting were not filed until more than two months later. Neither the meeting minutes nor the agenda includes a list of attendees, and no public comment was offered.

The minutes of the Providence School Building Committee are generally sparse. A number of them were filed months after the meetings were held. While the defunding of certain schools, including ASF Elementary, precipitated their closures, the meeting minutes include no mention of a discussion or vote to close schools. The committee also apparently never heard public comment from anyone from the schools that were defunded and later slated for closure.

There was extremely limited parent involvement in the Providence School Building Committee. However, the two members of the committee who are parents of PPSD students also happen to be part of Parents Leading for Educational Equity (PLEE.) Ramona Santos Torres, one of the parent representatives on the building committee, is the executive director of PLEE. The other parent representative on the committee is also a PLEE member.

These parents’ connection to PLEE raises concerns about whether they are advocating strictly as individual Providence Schools parents or as representatives of PLEE, an organization that has ties to charter schools and pro-charter advocacy organizations. Janie Seguí Rodríguez, who is on the board of PLEE, works for Achievement First and is also on the board of Stop the Wait RI, an organization dedicated to advocating for the expansion of charter schools. Maurice Cunningham, the author of Dark Money and the Politics of School Privatization, described both PLEE and Stop the Wait RI as “dark money fronts” that are “masquerading as school reformers.”

In 2019, the Johns Hopkins report on Providence Schools found that “parents are marginalized and demoralized…The lack of parent input was striking on its own, but the widespread acceptance of this marginalization was of particular note.” Community marginalization was one of the problems that RIDE promised to improve when it took over the district. RIDE’s Turnaround Action Plan for Providence Schools includes “authentic and transparent family and community engagement as one of its three main pillars. It’s hard to imagine what could be further from “authentic and transparent family and community engagement,” than including on the school building committee two parents from an organization funded by dark money and then never hearing from community members whose schools would be defunded and closed.

From the limited information that is publicly available about the building committee, it’s difficult to piece together exactly what transpired in the meetings and what role the committee ultimately played in making decisions. Nor is it clear how the members of the committee were selected. PPSD Superintendent Javier Montañez has simply said, “individuals were asked to participate. What is clear is that members of the Providence School Building Committee worked in conjunction with representatives from several out-of-state for-profit companies with whom they met to discuss major funding and programmatic decisions for the district.

Given the limited parent representation and lack of public comment, it’s difficult to take seriously official claims that this committee presented the community with an opportunity to engage in the decision-making process. It appears that the committee may have instead presented private companies with the opportunity to exercise an extremely outsized influence on major decisions related to our public schools.

Part 3: “We would really like to know how these schools were chosen, and why it was that they were chosen”

While the Broad Street Bees were fighting to save their school, state, city, and Providence Public School District officials were busy celebrating a slew of school construction projects, including a new $44 million project at Spaziano Annex, which is the most costly project in the district. Astoundingly, construction on this project, along with two other major school construction projects in Providence, was initiated without funding approval from the City Council.

Construction work at Spaziano Annex began at a public groundbreaking ceremony on July 20, 2022. Almost eight months after construction started, on March 7, 2023, representatives from Downes Construction, a Connecticut-based company, attended a meeting of the Providence City Council’s finance committee and told city councilmembers that there had been a “clerical error” in the approval process for work at Spaziano Annex, D’Abate Elementary, and the Narducci Learning Center (formerly Windmill Elementary.)

A representative from Downes Construction offered the following explanation for the error in approval for work at Spaziano Annex: “The design portion of it was $4.7 million, which went to [sic] Board of Contract and Supply, and they failed to include $35 million of trade costs.

When Finance Chair and Councilwoman Helen Anthony asked if Downes Construction was seeking funding approval in order to begin construction, the Downes representative replied, “no, it’s well underway. A PowerPoint submitted by Downes shows that steel beams had already been erected, and a concrete slab had already been poured.

“This all just feels very opaque, Councilman John Goncalves commented on the contract approval process.

“They’ve already been calling and requesting payment, a representative from Downes Construction stated as he urged the committee to move forward with approval.

After some discussion, the City Council approved an “amendment and clarification of the award for Design Builder (D-B) for Spaziano Annex Elementary School by the Board of Contract and Supply. This “clarification” brought the approved amount from $4.7 million to $41.2 million.

In the same meeting, the committee also approved two other major “amendments and clarifications” to school construction projects. While $5.8 million had been approved for design work at D’Abate Elementary, the committee approved an additional $13.5 million to pay for construction work that had already started in August of 2022. The committee also approved an additional $28.6 million to pay for construction at the Narducci Learning Center, which was already well underway in November of 2022. By the end of the March 7th meeting, the council approved over $78.7 million in “clarifications” for school construction projects that had already started.

Although Downes Construction was awarded the initial contracts for the design phase of the work at Spaziano Annex, D’Abate Elementary, and the Narducci Learning Center, the March amendments and clarifications passed by the council awarded the additional $78.7 million to O&G Industries, Ahlborg Construction, and Bacon Construction—companies that were apparently selected by Downes.

“I will make another plea, Chairwoman Anthony said near the end of the finance committee meeting. “If we could have some sort of…comprehensive presentation on how the decisions were made…We would really like to know how these schools were chosen, and why it was that they were chosen, and how that differs from the original [MOA].”

Councilwoman Anthony’s request underscores the extent to which even the elected officials responsible for approving school construction funding have been largely left in the dark about major decisions related to the funding, construction, and closure of public district schools.

Part 4: The conflict of interest is baked into the system.

In the last month, I had multiple people contact me to ask if I thought it was possible to file an ethics complaint against Mayor Smiley because, they argued, it’s a conflict of interest for Smiley to use his position as mayor to advance the interests of Achievement First since he also chairs the board of the charter school.

The problem is that this conflict of interest is baked into the system. Rhode Island state law provides for “mayoral academies, which are defined as “a charter school created by a mayor of any city or town within the State of Rhode Island, acting by, or through, a nonprofit organization established for said purpose” that enrolls students from more than one city or town on a lottery basis. The law also provides that “such mayoral academies shall have a board of trustees that…is chaired by the mayor of an included city or town. The mayoral academies effectively put mayors in the position of working against the interests of public school districts.

When the topic of mayoral academies came up on Rhode Island Twitter last week, reporter Steph Machado Tweeted this interesting tidbit:

When it was former Mayor Elorza giving the school building to Achievement First, and he was AF’s board chair, he told me: ‘It does indeed present a conflict. That was how it was designed.

Elorza is now the Head of Democrats for Education Reform, another pro-charter organization. His comments to Machado underscore that even the people on the side of charter schools agree that there is a conflict of interest built into the system.

So, who built the conflict of interest into the system? That would be Governor Dan McKee. In 2009, when McKee was mayor of Cumberland, he led a group of mayors in calling for a new type of charter school, which would be known as the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies. Mike Magee, who co-founded and was the CEO of Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, asserted that these new charter schools, “freed the schools from Rhode Island’s tenure, prevailing wage, and pension laws.

After helping found the mayoral academies and serving as the CEO of the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies, Magee left to become the founding CEO of Chiefs for Change, a pro-charter school education reform organization founded by former Florida governor Jeb Bush. Mike Magee has been one of Dan McKee’s top ten individual political donors over the years and served on his transition team after McKee became governor. The current education commissioner, Angélica Infante-Green, is also a member of Chiefs for Change, as is disgraced former superintendent Harrison Peters, who served as the first takeover superintendent of PPSD while holding an emergency certification.

The day before McKee took office as governor, the former chief operating officer at Chiefs for Change, Julia Rafal-Baer, founded ILO, a consulting firm that is now at the center of multiple federal and state investigations. Rafal-Baer was still working at Chiefs for Change when the CEO, Mike Magee, wrote an email to Jim Thorsen, the director of the Rhode Island Department of Administration and Nancy McIntyre, a state purchasing agent. In the email, Magee outlined how the state should write the request for proposals for the multimillion dollar contract that the McKee administration subsequently awarded to ILO—even though a competitor put forth a bid for $4 million less. The Rhode Island Attorney General, the state police, the US attorney’s office, and the FBI are now investigating the contract.

It remains to be seen whether Governor McKee’s deal with ILO violated the law, but there are much deeper issues at play than whether one specific contract was awarded illegally. There are serious conflicts of interest inherent in the system. Key leaders making decisions for our public schools have ties to charter schools and pro-charter advocacy organizations whose interests directly conflict with public school districts.

“The @RIDeptEd takeover was always a giveaway to consultants & big box charters,” Jeremy Sencer, AFT organizer and former VP of the Providence Teachers Union Tweeted. “The ILO contract was only part of the giveaway.

Part 5: So what?

Almost five months ago, I began organizing alongside families, students, educators, and community members who have been fighting to keep Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary open. I also started doing research to understand as much as I could about why the school was closing and who was behind the decision. I came away more concerned than ever about the future of our Providence Schools.

We need supporters of public education to pay attention, work in solidarity, and speak up for our schools. We need to demand that our elected officials at every level take action to protect our public schools, and we need to put on notice those in office who fail to act as stewards of public education. For their part, our elected officials should take several key steps to demand transparency and protect our public schools:

  1. A number of elected officials have criticized the lack of transparency in the process that led up to the recent school closures. It’s time to demand answers. The House and Senate Oversight Committees previously met to discuss the progress of the state takeover of Providence Schools. They should convene again to examine the closure of Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary, Carl G. Lauro Elementary, and Gilbert Stuart Middle School. A few issues that the committees should examine include:
  • Who was involved in the decision to close Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary, Carl G. Lauro Elementary, and Gilbert Stuart Middle School?
  • How were the members of the Providence School Building Committee selected? What role did the Providence School Building Committee play in discussing and deciding funding reallocation and school closures?
  • What role did private companies, including Downes Construction, play in discussing and deciding funding reallocation and school closures?
  • Why were meeting minutes of the Providence School Building Committee regularly filed months after the legal deadline?
  • What role did Downes Construction play in selecting companies to receive contracts for construction in Providence Schools?
  • How did Downes construction determine the Facilities Condition Index for each school? What documentation do they have of their assessment process?
  • How was construction work allowed to begin prior to the City Council approving funding?
  • How did Downes Construction award contracts to O&G Industries, Ahlborg Construction, and Bacon Construction without having secured funding approval for construction work?
  • What, if any, connections did Downes Construction have to members of the Providence School Building Committee, as well as PPSD and RIDE leadership?

(Perhaps the Attorney General should play a role in helping to find the answers to some of these questions. Who knows!)

  1. Although the schools are under state takeover, the city council retains authority over the school buildings, which are owned by the city. The city council should refuse to allow any charter schools to use the Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary, Carl G. Lauro Elementary, and Gilbert Stuart Middle School. The city council has an opportunity to play a vital role in protecting our public schools from being displaced by the expansion of charters. The members of these neighborhoods and school communities should have a voice in how these publicly-owned buildings are used.
  2. We need folks in charge of our public schools who are acting in the best interests of our public schools—not doing the bidding of charter management organizations. The state law providing for mayoral academies with a board to be chaired by a local mayor creates a blatant conflict of interest. In advocating for the expansion of charters, mayors are necessarily undermining the public school district, which loses funding if student enrollment declines. A long-term goal going forward should be to revise the law and remove the role of the mayor as the board chair of the mayoral academies.
  3. Public school districts, such as Providence, cannot succeed if they continue to be systemically underfunded. The education funding formula is currently set up so that 52% of school funding comes from local sources, while 41% come from federal sources, and 7% come from federal sources. Consequently, communities with a smaller tax base have significantly less funding available for schools.

As a result of this inequitable school funding formula, funding in Rhode Island is “below adequate in the highest-poverty districts but far above adequate in the middle and lowest-poverty districts,” according to a report by Rutgers University education professor Bruce Baker. Although they need more resources to meet the needs of their students, high poverty school districts in Rhode Island, including Providence, receive 13.5% less funding than wealthier districts. The General Assembly needs to make fixing the inequitableschool funding formula a priority in the next session.