Nesi���s Notes: Sept. 25

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee’s administration has earmarked more than $11 million so far to help fund the new municipal education offices that the ILO Group is working to help set up around the state, Target 12 has learned.

New details about the initiative and its financing are contained in the more than 2,000 pages of documents obtained by Target 12 through a public-records request as part of an ongoing examination of ILO’s controversial $5.2 million state contract. Attorney General Peter Neronha has opened an investigation into how the deal came together.

The proposed municipal education offices have emerged as a key aspect of the McKee administration’s vision for improving student achievement in the wake of the pandemic. They would be modeled in part on one that McKee and his longtime close adviser, Michael Magee Jr., created together in Cumberland while McKee was the town’s mayor in the 2000s.

“In Cumberland, the Office of Children Youth & Learning provides young people with year-round learning opportunities in areas like science, art, math, technology, literacy and more,” Alana O’Hare, McKee’s press secretary, told Target 12.

The Municipal Learning Centers — or MLCs, as they are now sometimes described in government shorthand – would operate outside traditional public school departments, and their activities could vary widely across communities.

“The governor believes students across Rhode Island, pre-K through 12, should have opportunities to extend learning beyond the school day,” O’Hare said. “Municipal learning centers can play a role in helping communities bridge the learning gap caused by the pandemic.”

A 2011 National League of Cities study, commissioned by the Wallace Foundation, argued the concept provides a way of “linking isolated programs within more coordinated citywide networks, bringing disparate stakeholders together to create and advance common strategies, and using research-based approaches to improve program quality and access.”

Yet there has been skepticism in some quarters about whether creating an additional layer of education-related bureaucracy will be valuable rather than duplicative. “I’m not sure exactly what the municipal agencies are going to do,” Rhode Island Association of School Committees executive director Tim Duffy said in September, suggesting they could be “somewhat redundant.”

The governor’s office didn’t contact school superintendents before moving forward with the concept, according to an Oct. 25 letter that R.I. Department of Administration Director Jim Thorsen sent to House Oversight Committee Chair Patricia Serpa. “This initiative of the governor’s office would not be overseen or administered by the Local Education Agencies (LEAs),” he noted.

Thorsen said municipal officials in Middletown and North Providence were looped in about the idea during the planning, however.

Officials in Cumberland have been divided over the benefits of the office McKee created there, which charges families fees for some services but also offers financial assistance. O’Hare emphasized that Cumberland model is not the only model.

“Municipal learning centers are not intended to be one size fits all – each community’s center would likely look different and be responsive to the unique needs of that community,” she said.

The potential activities of the MLCs were laid out in a June draft document circulated among officials at the R.I. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as they examined the initiative’s eligibility for federal coronavirus funding.

The document – which the governor’s office says “does not represent a final product” – envisions municipal and school leaders starting out by signing an “education declaration” pledging their cooperation.

The MLCs would operate year-round for all children, according to the document, “with [a] focus on out of school, vacation and summer learning.”

The MLCs would also send local families an annual report “on student learning, achievement and opportunities” in their municipality, and hold an annual event “to share [the] status of learning with the community broadly.”

While the document foresees using federal coronavirus relief funds to provide initial funding for the MLCs, it acknowledges that municipal leaders would eventually need to come up with local revenue to fund their continued operation.

An internal state document last spring showing the vision for Municipal Learning Centers (MLCs).

The MLCs have been a priority for the McKee administration since the week the governor was sworn in.

As Target 12 revealed last week, Magee wrote an email to state procurement officials on the governor’s third full day in office laying out a blueprint for what would eventually become the ILO contract. (Magee was a member of the governor’s transition team.) He mentioned that the contract would include work on “municipal education offices,” and pegged the estimated cost of the contract at between $12 million and $15 million.

After an unusual bidding process, the governor’s office awarded ILO a contract worth up to $5.2 million. A draft budget plan that ILO submitted on June 22 shows nearly half that money — $2.4 million — was designated to cover the cost of ILO’s consulting services related to the MLCs initiative.

Soon after the contract was finalized, on July 15, the governor held a meeting labeled on his calendar as “Municipal Learning Centers with ILO.” O’Hare said ILO managing partner Julia Rafal-Baer attended the meeting in person, while Magee “participated in the beginning of the meeting via Zoom.” (Rafal-Baer had been Magee’s top deputy at the nonprofit Chiefs for Change until late the prior month.)

ILO declined to comment for this report.

Middletown an early mover on MLCs

Providence is one of the communities that could see MLCs open up under the administration’s plans, though in the capital city’s case they would be run out of the governor’s office since the Providence schools are currently under state control. McKee said in September he envisions opening five such offices for Providence.

“Our office has been working with stakeholders and RIDE to determine where the greatest gaps in quality out-of-school-time programming exist in Providence,” O’Hare said. “We want to ensure we have an in-depth understanding of existing programming and services to allow us to focus on providing new and expanded learning opportunities.”

Nicole Dufresne, executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Providence, has had multiple meetings with administration and ILO officials since August to discuss ways her organization could be part of the city’s MLCs, according to Thorsen.

McKee told legislative leaders in September that at least four other communities beyond Providence and Cumberland were exploring whether to set up MLCs: Middletown, Pawtucket, Central Falls and North Providence.

Middletown officials have been interested in the MLCs idea since before the pandemic. McKee pitched the concept to town leaders at a meeting back in 2019, when he was still lieutenant governor, according to a Newport This Week report at the time.

Asked for an update, Middletown Town Administrator Shawn Brown told Target 12 the Town Council “recently voted to engage ILO through the state, at no cost to the town, to pursue an out-of-school education program for the community.”

Brown said the move followed a recent report for the town put together by an outside consultant, Maryclaire Knight, which suggested Middletown leaders could do more to support young people by offering additional services.

“The Town Council prioritized that they wanted to immediately address identifying a mission, vision, values, and charter for this program, and then an implementation plan,” he said.

In Pawtucket, city spokesperson Emily Rizzo said officials had “preliminary conversations” about MLCs through late September, “and we are seeking further understanding and information to determine if the city is to move forward.”

In Central Falls, preliminary discussions with ILO about setting up an MLC are ongoing, according to Superintendent Stephanie Downey Toledo. “We come together every few weeks,” she said. The Boys & Girls Club has also been part of the MLC discussions in Central Falls, according to Thorsen’s letter to lawmakers.

In North Providence, Superintendent Joseph Goho said the school department “has not heard from ILO or any other consultant about setting up municipal learning centers.” (The office of North Providence Mayor Charlie Lombardi, who served on the review team which vetted ILO for the contract, did not respond to an email seeking comment.)

O’Hare declined to offer a date for when the governor’s office expects the first MLC to be up and running, but said, “Discussions and planning are ongoing.”

The point person on the project for the governor is his policy director, Elizabeth Winangun, a former executive at the charter-school network Achievement First.

Early budget for MLCs was $18 million

The documents obtained by Target 12 provide more specifics regarding how much money the McKee administration has envisioned spending on the MLCs.

The governor’s office originally pegged the budget for the initiative at $18 million, according to a July 16 email sent by OMB contractor David Vince.

When Target 12 requested more details on how the $18 million figure was arrived at, R.I. Department of Administration spokesperson Derek Gomes downplayed the number.

“The $18 million figure referenced in that email was likely a very preliminary cost estimate from the governor’s office this past spring,” Gomes told Target 12. “As with many initiatives, this was a rough projection and not a final figure. The budget for this project is being continually refined to address current needs.”

At some point the $18 million was reduced to $8 million, and officials approved spending that money on MLCs during a June 25 OMB meeting. The money would come from Rhode Island’s American Rescue Plan Act “ESSER III” allocation. (The acronym stands for round three of the federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.)

Target 12 requested the documentation provided to OMB as backup for the $8 million allocation approved for MLCs, but Gomes said, “We are unable to find any explanatory materials.”

“The $8 million was an initial allocation for the initiative,” he said. “As we noted, the budget for this project is being continually refined to address current needs.”

None of the $8 million has been spent so far, he said.

In addition to the $8 million, authorization was also given at the same June 25 OMB meeting for ILO’s contract. Payment for the consulting work is being split between two pots of federal funds: ESSER III and leftover money from the $1.25 billion the state received through the CARES Act’s Coronavirus Relief Fund last year.

Emails show at least two OMB officials – Daniel Harlan and David Vince – were concerned about whether using ESSER III money to pay for the ILO contract would comply with federal restrictions on how much could go toward administrative costs.

Vince suggested that “part – or all” of the ILO contract “may be considered an Administrative costs [sic].” The federal government has capped such costs at $2.1 million, less than the amount needed, he wrote.

Harlan forwarded the message to Dorothy Pascale, head of the Pandemic Recovery Office, which is overseeing all of the billions of dollars in federal funding that has flowed into Rhode Island since the pandemic began.

It’s unknown how Pascale replied; state lawyers redacted the email she sent in response.

Public-records watch: RI Dept of Administration heavily redacted this June email from the head of the Pandemic Recovery Office as they were debating the allocation of ARPA money to the ILO contract and MLCs

— Ted Nesi (@TedNesi) November 18, 2021

Separately, McKee spokesperson Matt Sheaff has previously confirmed that $1.25 million of the money Amazon has agreed to pay in exchange for a tax break on its new Johnston distribution center is expected to be directed toward MLCs.

Last week Sheaff indicated the exact use of the Amazon money is still being determined, suggesting as an example it could potentially go toward “some type of voc-tech program in Johnston and surrounding communities that helps build a pipeline for open jobs in those areas.”

“Specifics like that for those funds are still being worked out,” Sheaff said.

> COMPLETE COVERAGE: Target 12 – Contract Controversy

Ted Nesi ([email protected]) is a Target 12 investigative reporter and 12 News politics/business editor. He co-hosts Newsmakers and writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays. Connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram

Eli Sherman ([email protected]) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Tim White contributed to this report.

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