Prov. superintendent slams bill to overhaul state takeover of schools

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — In his first visit to the Senate Education Committee since becoming Providence superintendent, Dr. Javier Montañez made an impassioned case against legislation that would change the state takeover of the Providence public schools.

“I don’t beg, I don’t plead. But when it comes to my kids, I will do whatever it takes,” Montañez said. “This is not the time to make this change. Let us change. Let us show you. Let us prove people wrong.”

The change he opposes is being proposed by state Sen. Sam Zurier, D-Providence, who has been critical of certain facets of the state takeover of the city’s schools.

Zurier’s legislation would primarily make changes to the state’s procedures for taking over school districts in the future, amending the brief language in the Crowley Act that governs the process in order to create a different structure modeled on Massachusetts.

But the third section of his bill is what would apply to the current Providence schools takeover, and was the subject of most of the discussion at Wednesday night’s hearing.

That section of the bill would create a nine-member volunteer board of trustees to oversee the state’s turnaround of the Providence schools, which began in late 2019. The new board would have the power to approve high-level district hires, set district policy, review progress toward annual goals, and provide guidance on the turnaround.

In explaining the bill to the committee, Zurier pointed out that previous layers of bureaucracy required for making decisions — sometimes criticized as excessive — have now “collapsed” into just the state education commissioner and her appointed superintendent.

In practice, that means spending, hiring or policy decisions that were previously vetted publicly and required approval by one or more public bodies can now be decided by one person.

“This created a risk for error,” Zurier said. “Which sadly came to pass when former Superintendent [Harrison] Peters hired an administrator from Florida with a record of popping the toes of students.”

That now-former administrator, Olayinka Alege, was later arrested for forcibly rubbing a boy’s foot at a Warwick gym. He was convicted of assault by a judge earlier this month and has appealed the verdict.

“Prior to the takeover, administrative hirings of this kind were reviewed by the Providence School Board,” Zurier said. “Had the School Board retained this responsibility, I believe they could have prevented this harm.”

The proposed legislation would also limit the length of the takeover to three years, and require Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to seek permission from the new board to extend the turnaround by three more.

As it stands, Infante-Green has said she intends to extend the initial five-year term of the takeover to seven years, citing the pandemic as a significant impediment to achieving the original metrics laid out in the turnaround action plan, which was released in 2020.

Senate Oversight Committee Chairman Lou DiPalma, whose panel has been holding quarterly hearings about the Providence turnaround effort, expressed support for Zurier’s bill.

He pointed out that while the Crowley Act gives the power of taking over a district to the state’s Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, members of that board have delegated the powers to Infante-Green and do not actually approve or reject any hires, policies or the school budget in Providence. (The law actually uses the term “Board of Regents,” the old name for the council.)

“They’ve basically abdicated the responsibility of what they’re accountable to do by Rhode Island General Law,” DiPalma said.

But Montañez insisted that Providence has spent decades coming up with plans only to quickly abandon them, and said it was time to see the current takeover through without making changes.

“I heard that Massachusetts … they’re doing much better than Providence. But you know what’s the difference? They decided what their goals would be and stuck to those goals year after year,” Montañez said. “You know what we’re consistent with? We’re consistent with changing, changing, changing. And every time we change, our students suffer.”

He said the community created the turnaround action plan, and the district should continue on its current path to follow it.

“It hurts me when I hear that these changes want to come in just when we’re creating a foundation,” Montañez said.

Sen. Sandra Cano, a Pawtucket Democrat and chair of the Education Committee, noted the superintendent’s strong opposition to the bill but asked him to submit any suggested amendments.

“I think this committee would be interested in looking at those,” Cano said.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza submitted written testimony in support of most of the bill, but asked for two amendments. He recommended that the first part of bill — which would restructure future takeovers — should include clear power for the R.I. Department of Education to alter teachers’ contracts if they take over a school district.

Elorza also suggested that instead of creating a new board of trustees to oversee the Providence schools — which would be dissolved when the schools return to city control — the legislation should empower an existing public body such as the Providence School Board to do that oversight work.

Steph Machado ([email protected]) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.