Quick, what’s 2,000 times $10,000? Maybe $2 million? Nope, twenty million dollars. That’s the back of the envelope estimate of the eventual annual budget impact on the Providence Public School District (PPSD) of a proposed expansion of the Achievement First Rhode Island (AFRI) charter school network from its current cap of 912 students to 3,112 across a total of seven schools. Even accounting for savings to the PPSD from reducing personnel and other costs, a 2011 report by Providence’s internal auditor estimated that the original Achievement First proposal would cost the district over $10,000 per student. So in 10 years, 2026, when the proposed AFRI expansion would be complete, the impact on PPSD would be in the neighborhood of $20 million per year.

In very round numbers, about two-thirds of the $350 million dollar PPSD budget comes from the state, and one third from the city. Under the new charter funding formula, PPSD will be able to hold back some state funding from charters, perhaps around 10%, so that will save a million or two. Thus, one can project that in 2026 PPSD will be losing, say, $12 million annually in state funding while $7 million of Providence municipal education funds will be diverted to AFRI.

The upshot of this is that to simply maintain the current level of service at the PPSD, the City of Providence will have to replace not only the diverted local funding, but the state funding as well. If not $20 million, close to it. Definitely well into eight figures per budget year. The city’s internal auditor is expected to release a detailed analysis in coming weeks.

Let’s toss out a few more numbers for perspective. This year’s entire city budget is $718 million. The city’s contribution to the PPSD budget this fiscal year is $125 million, so we would be talking about increasing the city’s expenditure on schooling by about a sixth — just to maintain the status quo of services in the district. Making up $20 million would be roughly equivalent to about an 8% commercial and residential tax increase city-wide. From 2005 to 2016, state aid for the City of Providence decreased 32 percent, or $17.5 million. It seems hardly necessary to mention at this point that Providence is said to face a long-term structural deficit. Mayor Elorza endorsed a report issued in March by the National Research Network that projected a $176 million budget deficit by 2026.

The city can do a lot with $20 million. If we assume $100,000 per teacher, that’s 200 teachers. It is five times the city’s current budget for our public library system. A couple years ago we re-paved a surprisingly large chunk of the city’s worst roads with a $40 million dollar bond, much to the relief of my car’s suspension. The total savings to the city of the new minimum manning clause in the new proposed firefighters’ contract that the mayor fought so hard for will probably end up being around $2 or $3 million per year.
The fiscal time bomb described above led to a statewide backlash in the last legislative session, resulting in amendments to the charter authorization process, requiring

"...the council on elementary and secondary education (CESC) (to) place substantial weight on the fiscal impact on the city or town, programmatic impact on the sending school district, and the educational impact on the students in the district to ensure that the proposal is economically prudent for the city or town, and academically prudent for the proposed sending school district and for all students in the sending district."

In response to the new law, AFRI might have submitted a modest, incremental proposal, seeking to show a small expansion would have a limited impact on the PPSD. Instead, they chose to directly challenge the CESC to enforce the fiscal impact clause as written by proposing essentially the largest conceivable expansion of a charter school in Rhode Island, creating the regional Achievement First network’s biggest group of schools in any city outside of New York City, with projected enrollment over 10% of total enrollment for the host district of Providence. If the CESC approves this expansion, they will be signaling an unwillingness to enforce the new fiscal impact clause under almost any conceivable circumstances.

In a clause unique to Rhode Island mayoral academies, the chair of the board of the school network must be the mayor of one of the participating communities. In the case of AFRI, this is Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. The AFRI board resolution that requested this expansion includes an extraordinary veto clause to allow Elorza to kill the plan even if the CESC approves it:

"...if authorization to open the new school be granted, AFRI will only open such school with a subsequent affirmative vote by the Board of Directors of AFRI and provided further that such vote must include an affirmative vote by the Mayor of Providence based on his assessment that the opening of this additional school will be aligned with the best interests of the Providence Public School District..."

Elorza’s first term as mayor has been dominated by austerity. Flat funding for the PPSD from the city, putting the screws to firefighters and their families. Some small initiatives like a bigger arts festival and a couple blocks of decent bike lanes, but nobody in Providence should expect any significant improvements to the city at this point.

Elorza recently touted a $9 million surplus for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, although predictably those numbers are currently being disputed and reflect a few tricks like pushing much needed hiring and training of new police and firefighters into the current fiscal year. Ultimately, Elorza is staking his political future on stabilizing and securing Providence’s finances over the next two years and running on that accomplishment.

Signing off on the AFRI expansion will undo everything else he has accomplished on the budget, and then some. It is exactly the kind of long-term budget bomb he has accused previous mayors of irresponsibly leaving for him. A future opponent does not even need to make it a public school vs. charter school issue — it is just fiscal irresponsibility, a high handed unilateral decision by the mayor to create three new privately managed schools which he can take credit for at a steep cost to the rest of the city in perpetuity. It is an easy argument to make because it is entirely true. As the Providence Teachers Union prepares for another round of contract negotiations this spring, the picket signs practically write themselves: “Elorza: Flat funding for PPSD; $20 million for Achievement First.”

The fact that AFRI has split their proposal into two distinct parts is a tacit admission that it is an overreach that should not be approved in whole. It is a sign of what George W. Bush liked to call “negotiating with yourself.” They know the entire proposal is likely be rejected, and rather than coming back next year with a smaller one, better to just spilt it up so they can nail down what they would consider the essential half now. This is not a case where criticism will fall on deaf ears or have no effect. If you want to at least slow the growth of budget-busting corporate charters, speak up now.