Providence City Council creating school department oversight committee

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Providence School Department is about to face a lot more scrutiny from the City Council.

Newly elected Council President David Salvatore is creating a Special Committee on School Department Oversight, according to a resolution that will appear on the council meeting agenda Monday night. Only members of the council can serve on special committees.

Salvatore has not appointed any committee members, but Councilman Sam Zurier confirmed this week he has had discussions with the president about serving as chair. In an email, Zurier said he would like the committee’s responsibilities to include “review/approval of the School Department budget, collective bargaining agreements for employees within the School Department and appointments to the School Board.”

In the past, the City Council Finance Committee has handled the responsibilities Zurier cited, but Committee Chairman John Igliozzi has said he supports a committee that would be tasked with focusing on a department that represents nearly half of the city budget.

The new committee comes at a turbulent time for the school department.

In November, Igliozzi’s Finance Committee balked at Superintendent Chris Maher’s proposal for how he wanted to spend an unanticipated $5 million increase in state aid this year, which included several raises for current administrative employees as well as new hires. It’s unclear whether the new committee will consider a revised version of the superintendent’s plan.

The district also placed more than 70 school employees on administrative leave between September and December following multiple accusations of abuse against students. The vast majority of the employees have been cleared of any wrongdoing. The district has blamed a policy passed down from the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families for the spike in leaves.

The Providence Teachers Union’s contract expired in August, and it’s unclear when a new a deal will be reached. The school department is also expecting years of large state aid increases to tail off in the next state budget, which could create large gaps in the local budget.

Zurier, a Democrat who represents Ward 2 on the East Side, is well-equipped to lead the new committee. An attorney, he served on the Providence School Board from 2000 until 2002 and served as chairman of the Council’s Special Committee on Education between 2012 and 2014.

The City Council has faced criticism in the past for having too much authority when it comes to the school department. Before she left her job in 2014, Superintendent Susan Lusi called  the local government’s role in education a “very complex, time-consuming and redundant system,” noting that even small vendor contracts require several layers of approval before they can move forward.

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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