Four new members joined the Providence School Board following their Jan. 19 approval by the Providence City Council. The members, nominated by Mayor Brett Smiley, join the nine-person board at a crucial time as officials prepare for the possible 2024 return of the Providence Public School District to city control after a five-year state takeover.
The four new members are Carolina Roberts-Santana, George Matouk, Toni Akin and Erlin Rogel. According to a Jan. 3 press release announcing the mayor’s selections for the board, Roberts-Santana is a senior research administrator at Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, while Matouk is a board trustee at The Gordon School in East Providence and CEO of linen company John Matouk & Co. Rogel is a senior advisor to Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos and former director of intergovernmental affairs at PPSD and Akin is a fiscal specialist for Norfolk County, Massachusetts with “a deep understanding of school finances,” the release said.
Matouk, Akin and Rogel will serve until January 2026. Roberts-Santana, who is replacing outgoing board Vice President Diagneris Garcia, will serve until January 2024. During their first meeting on Feb. 22, the new board will be charged with electing a new president and vice president after Garcia resigned and President Kinzel Thomas did not apply to remain on the board.
Membership applications are first reviewed by a nomination committee and then sent to the mayor, who submits the nominations to the City Council. Mayor Smiley “is confident that the four individuals who were ultimately nominated have (the) expertise and professional skills needed to move Providence Public Schools forward,” wrote Patricia Socarras, director of communications for the City of Providence, in an email to The Herald.
With PPSD still controlled by the Rhode Island Department of Education, the board’s powers will remain somewhat limited until the district is returned to Providence’s authority. The state takeover began in 2019 after a report from Johns Hopkins University revealed dysfunction in district schools, The Herald previously reported. But the body still “plays a crucial role in community and public education and engagement,” Socarras wrote.
“The Mayor hopes that these new board members, the existing board members, students, families and educators throughout the district can collaboratively focus on tangible results for our schools,” Socarras wrote. “That includes improved facilities, increased supports inside and outside of the classroom and better (learning) opportunities at all grades.”
Multiple new members acknowledged that they are arriving on the board at a difficult time for the district. “PPSD is at yet another challenging but pivotal moment in its history,” Matouk wrote in an email to The Herald. “I don’t have any illusions regarding the complexity of the problems at hand.”
“Providence Public Schools is in crisis,” wrote Roberts-Santana in an email to The Herald. “I think we need to all sit and admit that. There are plans in place to help the district through the crisis but the reality is that from top to bottom, from city to state, the district is in despair.”
“Parents are aching in desperation, teachers feel abandoned and betrayed, administrators are struggling and the leadership is shaken,” she wrote.
New members expressed a desire to make tangible changes to the district in the coming years. Roberts-Santana, who has a child with autism, hopes she can encourage the other board members to help improve PPSD’s services for disabled students.
She added that she hopes to “inspire other parents to step up and be the voice of equity, inclusion and fairness” in the district.
Akin wrote that she hopes that she can “offer a source of support to students and families” during her term on the board. “My hope is that this will build morale internally and thus build confidence with the general public as the state takeover ends.”
Rogel told The Herald he wants to emphasize the importance of after-school programming to the other members. “The school board plays an important role in ensuring the well-being of Providence students — which extends beyond the seven hours a day they spend in our buildings,” he wrote in an email to The Herald.
To make up for the pandemic-related learning loss, Rogel wrote that he plans to promote “accelerated learning.” He also hopes to improve transparency and communication regarding school closures — a nod to the controversial shuttering of three schools that led to criticism of PPSD administration for lack of community involvement.
The new members will enter the board amidst widespread criticism of PPSD administration. Frustration with school closures and an anonymous letter attacking administrators at the RIDE and PPSD have made recent board meetings rather contentious, prompting outgoing Vice President Garcia to announce her resignation in November. Garcia called tensions at the board “the worst I have ever seen,” according to reporting from The Providence Journal.
“There is a lot of frustration across stakeholders in the school system and there is ample reason for it,” Matouk wrote. “But we need to remember that we all share the same goals and the kids aren’t going to benefit from parties arguing instead of cooperating.”
“The board should be a force for reducing tension and not increasing it,” Matouk added.
Rogel also wrote that the school system’s leaders should stay focused on “what’s best for students,” and that the school board could avoid conflict by sticking to its defined roles. “Understanding (the) delineation of responsibilities will help ease those tensions,” he said.
According to Matouk, putting PPSD back on the right track before the end of the takeover is crucial. “When the return to local control happens, it will be a historic moment of opportunity for the district, the kids and the City of Providence,” he wrote. “We have to get it right.”