Classroom Cuts & Budget Blues: A Q&A with Providence Mayor Angel Taveras

The nearby Providence, R.I. has been facing a budgetary crisis similar to the one Westport, and it has affected the education system in the city as well. | Photo contributed by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras

On March 1, Superintendent of Westport Public Schools Elliott Landon sent a letter to 144 untenured Westport teachers notifying them that their contracts would not be renewed for the 2011-12 school year. In addition, the Board of Education (BOE) and Board of Finance (BOF) have been at odds regarding budgetary cuts.

These financial and staffing cuts are not unique to Westport: countless communities across the country have been reevaluating their education budgets. Providence R.I., which is in the midst of extreme financial struggle, is one of these communities.

Earlier this year, the Providence school committee handed pink slips to 1,929 city public school teachers in an attempt to save the budget.

This decision was supported by Providence mayor Angel Taveras, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, who assumed office in Jan.

In this interview, Taveras explains the financial crisis in Providence – which is not too dissimilar from that of Westport – and offers advice for a solution.

What brought about the recent need for cuts in the Providence education budget? How does it affect the future of a city like Providence? Has the quality of education in Providence been affected? How so?
Providence is in the middle of a financial emergency. The city has a $635 million budget and is facing a $110 million structural budget deficit in the next fiscal year. The Providence School Department budget makes up about half of the city’s entire budget.

I am deeply committed to making the tough decisions required to usher the city safely through this financial emergency and build a stronger Providence. It is very important that people understand two things:

First, my administration is not trying to balance the city’s budget on the backs of students and teachers. Everyone will be part of the solution as we move Providence forward. I am negotiating with our police, firefighter and laborer unions. We have made layoffs at City Hall with a goal to reduce every department budget by at least 10 percent. I am asking Providence’s colleges, universities and hospitals to contribute more. Because leadership and sacrifice starts at the top, I have taken a 10 percent pay cut and cut the Mayor’s Office budget by ten percent.

Second, the steps we are taking to make Providence’s schools financially sustainable will not have a negative impact on the quality of education we provide our children. The decision to close four schools has been very carefully considered so that many students who go to different school buildings in September will have the opportunity to attend a higher-performing school that is closer to their home.

What has resulted from the cuts?
The city will start saving $12 million next year as a result closing four schools.

If you were to offer one piece of advice to other communities across the country facing difficulties in their education budgets, what would it be?
Communities facing these difficulties deserve honesty, transparency and information. We cannot pretend that our schools are the best they can be or that we are making progress fast enough, especially at low-performing schools. We also cannot spend what we do not have.