Auditor: Providence schools could lose millions of dollars from Achievement First expansion

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence public schools would stand to lose out on between $31 million and $32 million if the high-performing schools run by Achievement First are allowed to expand to serve more than 3,000 students by the 2026-27 school year, according to the city’s internal auditor.

In his fiscal analysis, internal auditor Matt Clarkin included the annual loss of state aid from students from Providence attending Achievement First mayoral academies as well as a reduction in teacher positions in the city’s traditional public schools. Clarkin also included tuition costs and federal funding in the review.

Clarkin determined that the district would lose about $35.3 million over the next decade if the Achievement First grew from 728 students in the current school year to 3,112 students during the 2026-27 school. The schools have already been approved to grow to 912 students by next year.

The analysis suggests that if the district were to eliminate 40 teacher positions over the next decade, the cost would drop to $32 million. If the district cut 50 teachers, the city would still lose about $31 million.

Achievement First, a charter management organization that runs 32 schools in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island, has two proposals in its expansion application to the R.I. Dept. of Education: One would allow students enrolled in its two existing elementary schools to attend middle school and high school. The second proposal would allow for a third elementary school, with those students also flowing into middle and high schools run by Achievement First.

Clarkin’s analysis did not consider the presumably lower cost of only allowing students enrolled in Achievement First’s two elementary schools to continue with the organizations through middle school and high school.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, who chairs the Achievement First board, has said he supports Achievement First opening a middle school and high school, but he has not committed to the expansion to 3,112 students. The board has agreed to give Elorza veto power over the expansion proposal.

Nicholas Hemond, the president of the Providence School Board, said the board approved a resolution this week that is consistent with Elorza’s views. But he also acknowledged he has been frustrated with Achievement First.

“The problem is they have not been the partners they pledged to be back when they originally asked for this board’s support,” Hemond said. “The only time any of them reach out is when one of us says something bad about them in the press.”

Amanda Pinto, a spokesperson for Achievement First, said state has not completed its study on the fiscal and educational impact on the organization’s proposed expansion, a provision required in state law. She noted that traditional school districts are allowed to hold funds for fixed costs.

“Our expansion would have a positive educational impact on Providence families, especially those from traditionally underserved communities,” she said. “Adding more high-quality schools will improve the economic outlook and prospects for the city for years to come.”

Education Commissioner Ken Wagner is scheduled to give his recommendation on the expansion to the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education at a meeting Dec. 6, according to spokesman Elliot Krieger. The department of education is accepting public comment on the proposal through Dec. 1.

Mayoral academies are similar to other public charter schools, but they are governed by a board of directors that is chaired by a municipal leader. In Achievement First’s case, the schools draw from students in Providence, Warwick, North Providence and Cranston, although most of the students come from the capital city.

The schools are allowed to operate independent of a traditional municipal teachers’ union contract, which supporters say gives them more flexibility when it comes to regulations such as the length of the school day or school year.

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Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowan