Auditor: True cost of Achievement First expansion could be $29M a year for Providence

achievement first charter

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Providence public schools could lose out on between $28 million and $29 million a year if Achievement First is allowed to grow to more than 3,000 students by the 2026-27 school year, according to the city’s internal auditor.

But internal auditor Matt Clarkin is cautioning that his analysis is not an “all-inclusive look at all of the financial aspects” of the proposed expansion, which could see Achievement First expand from 728 students in the current school year to 3,112 students by 2026.

“This is a high-level look,” Clarkin said Monday. “It’s not a deep dive.”

Clarkin’s analysis is similar to findings he released last week, but he acknowledged that his original figures did not accurately account for the total amount of funding Providence may lose from the proposed expansion. He now says the hit to the school district could total between $173 million and $179 million by the 2026-27 school year, with an annual loss of between $28 million and $29 million thereafter.

Clarkin’s findings factor in 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’s analysis did not include any increase in the city’s school budget – $363.8 million in the current fiscal year – even though the state’s education funding formula includes at least one more year of increased school dollars for Providence.

The analysis suggests that if the district were to eliminate 39 teacher positions over the next decade, the annual cost to the city would be $29 million. If the district cut 48 teachers, the city would still lose about $28 million a year. Clarkin did not include the potential savings from a reduction of any other professional staff in his findings.

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 (RIDE): 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.

Amanda Pinto, a spokesperson for Achievement First, said the organization is waiting for the results of RIDE’s review of the financial impact of the potential expansion.

“We believe the internal auditor’s analysis does not take into account a number of critical factors,” Pinto said. “RIDE is considering the fiscal and educational impact of our proposed expansion on the entire community, as they are required to by law. Their analysis includes weighing all of the many financial factors, including the long-term cost of failing to provide thousands of students with the high-quality education they need to succeed.”

Bill Fischer, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now (RI-CAN), said the organization is “concerned about what is obviously a very broad analysis with no back up.” RI-CAN, a nonprofit that advocates for education reform, supports the expansion proposal.

Fischer noted that the review does not take into account the benefit of 3,000 students attending high-performing schools as opposed to low-performing traditional public schools.

“RIDE has a different charge here,” he said. “RIDE must look at the impact to the community here, not just the impact to the district.”

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