Elorza, former Providence mayors offer Smiley recommendations to change city’s education system

PROVIDENCE – Three former city mayors on Monday jointly offered Mayor-elect Brett Smiley four recommendations on how to transform education within the Providence Public School District.

Paolino Properties LP Managing Principal Joseph R. Paolino Jr., Womble Bond Dickenson LLP partner Angel Taveras and outgoing Mayor Jorge O. Elorza made the recommendations emphasizing that they strongly believe city students can succeed despite the myriad of challenges plaguing the school system, which is currently under R.I. Department of Education control.

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Paolino, who served as mayor from 1984 through 1991, said in a statement that it is important that he, along with Elorza and Taveras, share with Smiley his experience and challenges in dealing with the city’s education system because education “is the cornerstone of the community’s success.”

“I hope that these recommendations can help prepare the mayor-elect for the hard work that lies ahead and act as a catalyst for real change in our classrooms and schools across the district,” Paolino said.

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One major recommendation the past mayors offered to Smiley is to work with the Providence Teachers Union to fix what they call an “unworkable management structure.” Paolino, Taveras and Elorza said the school district’s biggest structural challenge is the current teachers union contract, teacher tenure laws and state arbitration laws. Together, those challenges strip both principals and the superintendent of any autonomy and power to act in order to bring any meaningful change to the district, the former mayors said.

The mayors suggest that Smiley work with the union to jointly find ways to correct the management challenges “in a way that gives principals and superintendents the tools they need to turn the district around.” If it’s not possible, then the former mayors recommend moving the city to an “all-public-charter” district. Such a move, the former mayors said, would empower all principals and school leaders with the flexibility to make necessary changes.

“Each year, the parents are voting with their feet and the number of public charter school applications has soared as families recognize that public charter schools offer better options for their kids,” the mayors said in their letter to Smiley, although the letter does not note any data supporting this claim as it pertains to the city. “While this approach is bold, we believe it is the best and fairest one.”

Other recommendations the mayors offered are to continue investing in 21st-century school buildings. The city has recently completed construction and renovation projects on city school buildings and has millions of dollars in bond money to work on more projects.

Elorza, Paolino and Taveras also suggest to invest in out-of-school learning time to help children recover from learning loss, and also work with key stakeholders such as family members and universities to amplify their voices to help with any substantial change within the school district.

Representatives for Smiley did not immediately respond Monday to questions seeking further comment about the mayor-elect’s thoughts on the recommendations or whether or not Smiley plans to conduct his own review of the city’s education system to determine what is best for the district moving forward.

The letter the former mayors sent to Smiley outlining the recommendations can be read here.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.