Providence City Council approves charter school lease with clock ticking

Renegotiated long-term lease for old Charles Fortes Elementary requires capital investments, accountability measures

By: - June 28, 2023 12:19 pm

Charter school supporters gather at Providence City Hall for a City Council vote on a long-term lease allowing Achievement First to continue operating its charter school out of the former Charles N. Fortes Elementary School. (Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — Applause erupted from a yellow-shirted audience of charter school supporters Tuesday after the City Council approved a new lease agreement on a West End charter school just three days before its current lease expires.

The City Council voted 8-5 at a special meeting called to approve the 25-year leasing agreement with Achievement First to operate Achievement First Promesa Elementary out of the former Charles N. Fortes Elementary School on Daboll Street.

The agreement was the second iteration after a proposed 40-year lease on the building ran into opposition from councilors at their June 21 meeting. Several councilors said its duration was too long and lacked accountability measures. The first proposal did not include benchmarks for capital improvement investments or reporting requirements.

Achievement First Promesa Elementary began to operate out of the building in 2021 under a two-year agreement with the city set to expire on Friday, June 30. Parents were worried that Achievement First would be forced to leave the building if no accord was reached by Friday.

Under the new agreement, Achievement First must create a capital improvement plan and allocate $2.5 million for it over the course of its first five-year term.

Providence City Council to consider charter school lease renewal

Voting in favor were council President Rachel Miller and members Pedro Espinal, Mary Kay Harris, Juan Pichardo, Jo-Ann Ryan, James Taylor, Ana Vargas, and Oscar Vargas. 

Opposed were Shelley Peterson, John Gonçalves, Miguel Sanchez, Justin Roias, and Sue AnderBois. Council members Althea Graves and Helen Anthony were absent.

“I am proud of the solution we have been able to reach, collaborating with City Council and Achievement First,” Providence Mayor Brett Smiley said in a text message statement after the vote. “To provide a long-term home for the students and teachers who have been learning in this building over the past two years.”

Tonight’s vote is a huge win for Providence families,” said Jillian Fain, Achievement First’s senior director of external relations, in an email after the vote. 

“With this lease, we will be able to make 234 Daboll Street a long-term home for our students and families and secure financing to make necessary facility upgrades that will benefit the young people who attend school there. We are proud to be part of the Providence community and excited about Achievement First Promesa’s future in this building.”

The lease allows for five-year terms with options to extend up to 25 years requires Achievement First to:

  • Pay a symbolic $1 in annual rent to the city.
  • Mandates a needs assessment to be submitted to the City Council within the start off every five-year term
  • Submit an annual progress report on capital improvements to be submitted to the Office of the City Clerk.

No more ‘eleventh hour’ decisions

The approval came on the heels of the controversial closure of two schools last Friday — Alan Shawn Feinstein Elementary on Broad Street and Charles G. Lauro Elementary on Kenyon Street. The Rhode Island Department of Education decided to close both schools last December, despite opposition from parents who raised concerns about the possibility of charter schools moving in.

Many parents in the South Side neighborhood where the two schools were located feared their children would be displaced by lotteries and entry requirements if they became charter schools.

Ward 1 City Councilman John Gonçalves, center, speaks against a lease with Achievement First for the former Charles N. Fortes Elementary School during a special Providence City Council Meeting at City Hall on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. (Kevin G. Andrade/Rhode Island Current)

Fox Point council member Gonçalves — who is a candidate for the Congressional District 1 seat recently vacated by Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO David N. Cicilline — channeled those concerns at the meeting.

“I am very, very concerned about the shuttering of public schools,” Gonçalves said. “I’ve been sounding the alarm on this issue. We need more transparency from RIDE about school closures well in advance as opposed to the eleventh hour.”

The first lease agreement was presented to the council only three hours before their June 21 meeting, said Roias, whose Ward 4 council seat includes parts of the Charles and Hope neighborhoods.

“Let me remind my colleagues of the unfortunate closure and displacement of Charles Fortes Elementary School, its students, and staff during the previous administration’s tenure,” Roias said. “The [former Mayor Jorge Elorza] administration quietly entered into a licensing agreement with Achievement First, allowing them to occupy the Charles Fortes Elementary School building.”

“We will not entertain any more proposals in this manner,” replied Harris, who represents parts of the Elmwood and Upper South Side neighborhoods. “Right now, we have a decision to make and the decision is made based on there is much more accountability than what we started with.”

 “This is no longer a conversation between public and charter,” she added. “If we find opportunities for people to occupy these buildings and make them suitable, so let it be.”

Supporters cheer

The audience consisted almost entirely of supporters of Promesa including Celeste Fagundes, of Warwick, whose daughter, Chance, will enter the second grade at Promesa in the 2023 to 2024 school year.

“I am very excited for the outcome,” said Fagundes, a member of Promesa’s Parent Leadership Committee, the school’s parent-teacher association. “We are impressed with that school.”

“I wouldn’t put my kid in Warwick Public Schools,” Fagundes added.

Most spectators wore the yellow T-shirts of Stop the Wait RI, a pro-charter 501(c)(4) nonprofit incorporated in Providence in 2021. It was founded by CEO Janie Segui Rodriguez, who  worked at Achievement First for over two years and still was employed by Achievement First for two months after establishing the group, according to her LinkedIn profile.

Rodriguez, who was not present, worked for TIMES2 STEM Academy, another Providence charter school, for two years before moving on to Achievement First.

Stop the Wait RI did not make an official comment on the vote.

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Kevin G. Andrade
Kevin G. Andrade

Kevin G. Andrade previously covered education, housing and human services for Rhode Island Current.

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