Providence Schools and the Greatest Transparency


The most effective transparency tool is to be there, which is an admonition as true about the long-term health of a civic system as about a single meeting.  This important lesson can be drawn from Erika Sanzi’s eye-opening (to her) experience of a Rhode Island Board of Education meeting concerning state involvement in the Providence school system:

Last night was a much anticipated meeting of the Rhode Island State Board of Education meeting—it’s impossible to imagine that those in charge did not expect a large crowd. The agenda included a vote on whether or not to allow Angélica Infante Green, the state education commissioner, to take over the Providence Schools. But somehow, nobody thought ahead and took the proactive step of a) ensuring there would be a livestream of the meeting and b) ensuring that there would be enough room capacity for everyone who made the effort to attend to actually be allowed into the room.

There were parents and other people who took the time to attend the meeting—and even pay top dollar for parking on the night of Hamilton’s opening—who were not allowed into the room.

Of course I sympathize with Sanzi in a “been there, sister,” kind of way, but some small portion of the criticism has to be allocated elsewhere — with an eye toward progress all around.

To some extent, one can understand why this board wouldn’t make provisions for a substantial audience, including by making the video available online in real time.  So little of what government does attracts public attention that the transparency muscle can atrophy.  That’s not an excuse, but it is a consideration.  After years of preparing for audiences that never appear, it’s easy to stop going through the motions.

Sanzi’s point is well taken, that it was easy to predict that this meeting would attract a bigger-than-usual crowd.  However, if a board regularly conducts its business before an audience in the single digits, exceeding the 188-seat capacity of its venue last night would seem unimaginable.

In other words, nothing will encourage government to be more audience-friendly than regularly having an audience.  As we allow government to absorb more and more authority, the lack of public participation in its operation can be shocking, and in a democracy, that’s on all of us as much as it’s on elected and appointed officials.

Consider the stark contrast between this meeting and your typical town school committee concerning a contentious contract.  The audience for those meetings would create a deliberately circus-like atmosphere.  There might be union organizers in costumes.  The board will hardly be able to proceed amidst the calls to move the meeting to a larger venue.

The problem is that, for the most part, parents and people in the community don’t want to disrupt and they don’t want to vilify.  They want respectful cooperation to solve problems.  They want government to work generally, not just to provide them with some special handout or benefit.  That produces a much different behavior.

  • Joe Smith

    After years of preparing for audiences that never appear

    The AF charter expansion had a packed house. When they held it at a different location, they forgot the construction being done in the vicinity, resulting in lots of people missing public comment window.

    And the audiences that never appear is because

    (1) They hold meetings in downtown Providence (who wants to navigate that at 5pm let alone then figure out/pay for parking)

    (2) on a Tuesday barely after the work day is over, considering commute (unless we are to believe only Providence citizens care about this even though 65% of PVD school district budget is state provided and the more PVD gets the more the rest of the cities and towns get squeezed for local property tax to cover their education costs).

    (3) Items are decided well in advance (oh yeah, that rolling quorum in advance stuff doesn’t apply to state boards) so public input isn’t going to have any real impact

    (4) This was a done deal months ago – the report was commissioned to give a pre-text – note Crowley Act technically requires a lot of detailed factual analysis; the Hopkins Report was essentially here are bad test scores and then lots of heart tugging anecdotes. Forget the bad methodology of mixing PARCC/RICAS scores – if you want to say the scores are bad, fine. But then someone should be taking over the state’s takeover of CF.

    No discussion of graduation rates, other assessments, objective review of facilities’ management, etc. Here’s a comment in the report of the interview of the former Supt

    Dr. Lusi summarized her overall view of the district in the following terms. The situation, she said, “is not our fault but it is our problem to solve.” She said it was “impossible not to acknowledge that Providence has hard working conditions for teachers and, combined with low pay, is a poor place for acquiring talented teachers.”

    So if you’re on the report team, wouldn’t you do a pay analysis of say Providence to Worcester teachers? According to Worcester School Union Contract for teachers, a Top Step teacher with Masters in 2019 would make $82K; in Providence, a top step teacher with Masters would make $80.5K — hmm. But you know a big difference – $10K or so for *entry* teachers – but when unions negotiate, it’s the top step teachers at the table.

    My point to come full circle – people don’t go because public input rarely matters and with this Board, since the Gov calls the shots, the BOE meetings are often just rubber stamp events.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I have always understood that “public meetings”, “comment periods”, and al similar, are simply designed to wear out the populace. Allowing the political types to proceed as desired. I think voters understand this intuitively.

    • Joe Smith

      I think at the local level it might have some impact depending on the issue; at the state level I would agree with your point.

      it’s just a venue so the paid lobbyists and advocacy groups can demonstrate either they are doing “something” or to fire up their supporters. This session you had just about every Mayor or town manager – most from the same political party as the party in power – advocate against legislation that still passed overwhelmingly.