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Fuad '23 and Sloan '23.5: Opacity, delays and power imbalances thwart Brown’s PPSD Fund Committee

In 2007, Brown drew national attention for promising to account for its role in the transatlantic slave trade. One of these promises brought forth the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, a $10 million endowment for the Providence Public School District that Brown intended to fill through fundraising. But twelve years later, following a damning Johns Hopkins report on the dilapidated state of PPSD, The Boston Globe revealed that Brown had only raised $1.9 million — well short of its original goal.

Then, last July, amid nationwide racial justice protests and the circulation of a petition urging Brown to pay up, President Christina Paxson P’19 announced an $8.1 million infusion from unrestricted endowment assets into the Fund. Paxson also detailed plans for a Public Education Committee to oversee expenditures. “By meeting regularly with a diverse group of stakeholders,” she said, “we can stay nimble, support emergent priorities and confront pressing problems facing” PPSD. In late January of this year, the committee held its inaugural meeting

As students who care deeply about educational equity in Providence, we support the PEC in its stated mission to “ensure collaboration … with members of the greater Providence community.” But, in light of the Fund’s dispiriting history, we also believe that the Brown community must stay informed about the PEC and its progress.

The January meeting consisted of introductions, informational presentations from Brown and Providence officials and a brief time at the end for Q&A, according to meeting minutes we obtained (and which were reviewed by The Herald). It’s difficult to draw any firm conclusions about the committee from one meeting. Nevertheless, the exigency of educational equity and the importance of community input demand thorough scrutiny. We have identified several areas of concern Brown must address for the PEC to function as it should.

Firstly, despite its community-centric mission, certain parts of the PEC are troublingly opaque. Meeting minutes note the “importance of maintaining confidentiality in PEC decision making processes” in a list of “Next Steps.” To be sure, if specific proposals were made public before disbursement, private interests could potentially start lobbying members. Still, we worry this ill-defined instruction will prevent members from fulfilling the committee’s most central objective: providing community oversight. How are the PEC members who represent local communities supposed to do so adequately if they’re potentially prohibited from conversing openly with those very community members? Our conversations with many PEC members have given us a greater understanding of the committee and its processes, but it is troubling that it was so difficult to learn more about the committee. Brown should remedy this by publicizing documentation of PEC meetings. Additionally, we hope members will have a say in determining transparency guidelines.

We also noticed that, even beyond the inherent power differential, the committee’s structure affords disproportionate authority to Brown. The PEC comprises sixteen voting members: seven administrators, one Corporation member, two junior faculty, three Brown students, one PPSD student and two heads of Providence-based nonprofits. With nearly half the seats held by Brown administrators, the University holds significant influence. Moreover, the only professors present are untenured faculty, who do not yet have long-term job security guaranteed by the University. We worry that a committee of this composition may face challenges holding the PEC properly accountable. And based on Brown’s track record on including community input in its property developments, we fear that Brown may use the pretense of representation afforded by the committee’s composition to outwardly justify pre-made decisions, such as funneling money toward schools it already has relationships with or supporting projects with an eye toward favorable publicity.

It is also unclear what role individual members are expected to play in the committee’s deliberations. Meeting minutes included no expectations of outside research or outreach on the part of members between the twice-yearly committee meetings, even in the “Next Steps” section. Consequently, we question how integral to the process they really are. As the committee begins to make funding decisions in the future, we hope members are afforded the opportunity to drive decision-making all the way from idea generation to fund distribution. While we do not know how decisions will be made in the future, giving members options predetermined by Brown to choose from would not constitute genuine community input. Members should be involved in the nuts-and-bolts work, not just brought in at the end to render a public relations-friendly rubber stamp. And to the extent this requires more work for committee members, especially those from the Providence community, we believe members should be compensated.

Ameliorating these structural issues with the committee is especially important now, given the demands associated with running a school district amidst a historic crisis. In 2019, Mayor Elorza requested $600,000 dollars in annual Fund contribution; Brown recently said it would pay out $400,000 to $500,000 a year. Throughout the pandemic, Brown has fallen far short of that, only opening the Fund twice: once last April, when it donated $100,000 to boost PPSD family internet access, and again in July, when it put $150,000 toward upgrading Hope High School’s library and media center.

Over the last eight months, PPSD’s need for monetary aid has been profound. But according to a document distributed to committee members that outlines the funds disbursed so far, which was reviewed by The Herald, the Fund did not disburse any money between July and January, and there are no indications that it has since. Whereas many of R.I.’s wealthier, suburban school districts have fully reopened, PPSD has been forced to rely heavily on virtual learning, while one in 10 Providence families still struggle with reliable access to internet and devices necessary for distanced education. PPSD’s attempts at reopening were hampered by severe teacher shortages and pre-pandemic infrastructure issues like painted-shut windows, decrepit HVAC systems and overcrowded classrooms. The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council predicts that this educational inequity will widen existing proficiency gaps. And state funding is scarce; PPSD requested $5 million more from the state this year but was denied. The Fund’s $250,000 aggregate contribution in 2020 — most of which didn’t even go to pandemic-related problems — is unacceptable.

And while the PEC was ostensibly formed to “support emergent priorities and confront pressing problems," the Fund has remained closed to PPSD throughout this school year despite their dire need, which leaves us questioning the purpose of the committee in the first place.

To be frank, we worry that the PEC was established to polish Brown’s public image — and justify its status as a tax-exempt non-profit — more than anything else. Brown was built on the labor of enslaved people and the theft of Narragansett land. But a transmuted version of this exploitation continues to constitute Brown’s relationship with Providence today, especially PPSD students, 91.5 percent of whom are people of color. According to a 2015 city-commissioned internal audit, Brown does not pay taxes on over 80 percent of its properties, which, according to a 2012 estimate, would reportedly yield over $38 million to Providence annually. Instead, it doles out “voluntary” donations, known as PILOTs (payment in lieu of taxes).

In 2012, facing pressure from City Hall to help Providence avert bankruptcy, Brown increased its annual PILOTs to around $6 million — a hard-fought victory for Providence. But Brown still wields undue influence over the city. This dynamic manifests itself in the University’s tax primacy and its aggressive annexation of College Hill. The Fund appears to be part and parcel of the administration’s political strategy: Despite disbursing a fraction of what was promised fourteen years ago (a grand total of $895,057), Brown has repeatedly cited the Fund as evidence of its contribution to Providence. These reports and other publicized contributions could serve as leverage for the University to justify its yearly level of PILOTs in negotiations with the city. 

The tens of millions that Providence loses in annual revenue from Brown’s tax exemption hurts PPSD, which, even before COVID-19, was facing a budget shortfall of $42 million by 2024. Now, as the pandemic further exacerbates these shortages, and the University’s multibillion dollar endowment swells to an all-time high, Brown’s injurious parasitism is clearer than ever. In the absence of tax reform, the PEC is a critical bandage for PPSD’s ills.

The University’s money and power were accrued wrongly from the beginning; only through community-driven redistribution can Brown begin to break this cycle of hoarding and neglect. We believe the PEC risks perpetuating Brown’s problematic relationship with Providence, instead of serving as the conduit for redistribution that is needed. We implore students to pay attention. The facade of a representative committee would do more harm than good if it allows Brown to justify its tax exemption, inequitably distribute funds or forestall further reparations.

When the PEC reconvenes next week for its first non-introductory meeting, we hope Brown administrators will focus on listening to committee members. They should also bring more community members into the fold. And they should facilitate generative discussions about transparency rules, potential compensation, voting structures, disbursement details and meeting frequency. 

The PEC holds the potential for an improved community partnership whose positive impacts would reverberate for generations. When future generations look back on Brown’s relationship with Providence, what will be our legacy? 

Sacha Sloan ’23.5 and Zoe Fuad ’23 can be reached at sacha_sloan@brown.edu and zoe_fuad@brown.edu. Sloan and Fuad are members of Students for Educational Equity. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.



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