Montanaro scandal prompts new rules for free tuition at RI colleges

Frank Montanaro Jr.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s higher-education board is tightening the rules for free tuition at state colleges after Target 12 revealed one of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello’s top staffers kept the lucrative perk for three years despite going to work at the State House.

Gov. Gina Raimondo praised the changes on Tuesday. “I don’t think there should be any special deals for special people,” she said in an interview. “You shouldn’t be able to get free tuition because you know somebody or you’re connected.”

Target 12 revealed in June that the staffer, Frank Montanaro Jr., remained officially on leave from his old job at Rhode Island College for three years – allowing him to collect $49,787 in free tuition over that time – after taking his $156,000-a-year State House position. Montanaro eventually agreed to repay the money. A state police investigation into the arrangement was forwarded to the attorney general.

The outcry over Montanaro led R.I. Postsecondary Commissioner Brenda Dann-Messier to launch a review of state policy on tuition waivers, and on Oct. 25 the Council on Postsecondary Education voted unanimously to approve a set of changes designed to avoid a similar situation in the future.

Among the changes: a ban on free tuition for employees who go on unpaid leave to take a job outside the colleges; a “uniform definition” of who qualifies as an eligible dependent child, based on IRS language, along with a formal affidavit to certify eligibility; and a requirement that the council approve any exceptions at a public meeting.

“For me the most important thing here is, all exceptions have to be done in public,” Raimondo said. “No secret deals, nothing on a piece of paper given to someone special – it’s all in public, so if there is a rare need to make an exception – maybe someone is sick, whatever the reason – do it in public.”

“What the board did here is common-sense transparency and is meant to give Rhode Islanders confidence in the way their money is being spent in higher ed,” she added.

In explaining how he was eligible for free tuition while on unpaid leave, Montanaro cited language in his former RIC union’s contract that trumped the higher-ed council’s existing policy. A spokeswoman for the council acknowledged union contracts will continue to take precedence, but said that agreement will be renegotiated in 2018 and is expected to incorporate the new policy going forward.

Raimondo said Montanaro was “given a special deal which I don’t think should have been done.”

“That’s the kind of thing that bothers the everyday Rhode Islander, including me,” she said. “Everybody struggles to pay for college, so we want to have the same policy for everybody and not let somebody get something special just because they know someone.”

The new changes were put into effect immediately: at the same meeting where they were approved, the council approved a request from RIC’s president to continue a waiver for a Community College of Rhode Island student whose father, a RIC employee, had just died.

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook

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