Montanaro agrees to repay RIC $41,000 over next 10 years for free tuition

Docs show Montanaro's union threatened grievances twice if free tuition blocked

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Former state Rep. Frank Montanaro Jr. has informed Rhode Island College he plans to repay $41,083 of the nearly $50,000 in free tuition he received after going to work at the State House, Target 12 has learned.

RIC also announced Thursday it has completed an internal review of the Montanaro affair and determined the arrangement was properly handled and “well-documented” – but at the same time released new material that shows just how hard Montanaro fought to hold onto the tuition perk.

Target 12 revealed in June that Montanaro remained on leave from his old job at RIC for three years – allowing him to collect $49,787 in free tuition over that time – after taking a $156,000 State House position appointed by House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. He eventually decided to repay the money. A state police investigation into the arrangement is now before the attorney general.

Joseph Penza Jr., Montanaro’s attorney, sent a letter to RIC finance officials on Wednesday laying out the terms of his repayment plan. He said Montanaro would not be repaying $8,704 in tuition used during the fall 2014 semester because it would have been made available without special permission to any employee on leave.

“Since Mr. Montanaro has not planned for this expenditure of funds, he will be ‘repaying’ that amount on a monthly basis over a 10-year period – the same time period for most student loans,” Penza wrote. “His first payment will be made during the first week of September.”

Montanaro will contact RIC to make arrangements for paying, Penza said. Based on the timeline, Montanaro’s monthly payment to RIC would be about $342. There was no mention of interest payments in the letter.

RIC said its internal review confirmed the decision to grant Montanaro a three-year leave “runs counter to Council on Postsecondary Education policy” but was allowed under his union contract, which takes precedence.

According to the newly released documents, Montanaro first sent a letter on May 7, 2014, to then-RIC President Nancy Carriuolo requesting a one-year leave to work for Mattiello, per his union contract. “As you are aware, Rhode Island College is my permanent ‘home,'” Montanaro wrote. “I appreciate your willingness to allow me this opportunity while retaining all of my benefits and statutory status.”

The college’s vice president of administration and finance, William Gearhart, approved the leave on May 28, but told Montanaro in a letter, “Please note that this leave is without pay and without benefits.” Asked Thursday why the ban on benefits did not apply to free tuition, a RIC spokeswoman said its policy then “permitted an individual to continue receiving waivers in the semester following the semester in which leave commenced.”

The next document dates from Feb. 3, 2015, when Carriuolo sent an email announcing she had granted Montanaro a three-year leave. “RIC is proud that one of our employees has been chosen to serve our legislature and our state,” Carriuolo wrote in the email, which was copied to Ed Pacheco, a former state representative who now works for RIC. (Carruiolo, who left RIC in 2016, did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.)

The two sides were apparently in dispute, however, over whether Montanaro should continue to receive free tuition during the lengthened leave.

On March 11, Carriuolo and Montanaro signed a formal Memorandum of Agreement that said Montanaro’s union, PSA Local 3302, had “asserted that Montanaro is currently entitled to tuition waiver” and that failing to give it to him would be “an abuse” of his union contract.

“RIC does not concede or agree that PSA and Montanaro’s position is supported by the CBA,” the agreement stipulated. Nevertheless, the college said it agreed to give him the free tuition for 2015-16 because the two sides “wish to resolve this dispute without the necessity, expense and inherent uncertainty in the formal Grievance process.”

“This was not standard procedure,” RIC acknowledged Thursday, but again said it was allowed under Montanaro’s union contract.

Notably, the same March 2015 agreement specifically stipulated that Montanaro could not receive free tuition again after the 2015-16 school year – even though he eventually did.

On May 23, 2016, Dennis Sousa, the PSA union’s president, contacted RIC’s interim president, Clark Greene, and asked him to sign an amendment to the March 2015 agreement allowing Montanaro a third year of free tuition. Otherwise, Sousa warned, the union would file a grievance on Montanaro’s behalf. RIC said Greene agreed, but only “with assurance from the PSA that this would be the final request for a renewal or a waiver.”

Appearing on WPRO’s Dan Yorke Show later Thursday, Mattiello again praised Montanaro for agreeing to repay the money and argued that RIC was at fault for giving him the benefit. “He didn’t have to pay it back,” Mattiello said. “I don’t think the benefit should have been given. I didn’t say it shouldn’t have been taken – it shouldn’t have been given.”

Pressed by Yorke about the PSA union’s threats to file a grievance against RIC, Mattiello said: “But that’s the relationship between the unions, the universities and the state. That’s an ongoing process that’s not unique to this particular case.”

Mattiello reiterated that he thinks RIC needs to do “a comprehensive review” of tuition waivers rather than focus on Montanaro. “This may be a unique waiver, but I’m sure if you look at them all there’s going to be a lot of questionable ones that will be different from this one,” he said.

The controversy over Montanaro’s treatment forced Rhode Island’s newly appointed postsecondary education commissioner, Brenda Dann-Messier, to conduct a review of tuition waivers across the state’s public colleges in addition to RIC’s own review. She said recommendations will be made to the Council on Postsecondary Education next month.

“It is important that the tuition waiver benefit is applied consistently across the system in line with its intent,” Dann-Messier said in a statement.

RIC has also hired an independent consultant, Claire Hall of the firm UECAT LLC, to conduct a review of its overall policy on tuition waivers.

Montanaro’s position at RIC, associate director of facilities and operations, was permanently filled last November. His three-year leave ended May 31.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

Tim White contributed to this report.