PROVIDENCE — When Brown University pledged to establish a $10 million endowment for Providence schools in 2007, then-president Ruth Simmons expressed confidence that donations to support the struggling urban school district would pour in.
“It’s very hard to find people who disagree on the importance of the schools, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we raised it very quickly and if we went over 10 million, frankly,” Simmons told The Brown Daily Herald, the university’s student newspaper, at the time.
Donors didn’t share her enthusiasm. Twelve years later, Brown has raised just $1.9 million for the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, leaving some city leaders to question whether the university has followed through on its promise.
Now, with Providence reeling from a blistering report on its schools that prompted the state to take control of the system, Brown officials say they have formed a task force to determine how the university can best support public education in the state while crafting a new strategy for the beleaguered fund.
“While we set a goal of raising $10 million in endowed funds, we were met with the reality that this particular giving opportunity didn’t resonate as much with donors,” Brian Clark, a university spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.
The meaning of the fund went far beyond supporting kids in Providence. It was created as a response to recommendations from Brown’s Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, which spent three years investigating the university’s historical relationship to the slave trade.
An anonymous donor contributed $250,000 in the fund’s first year, and in 2009 the university announced it would purchase graphing calculators for Providence students. The endowment also paid for books, computers, and musical instruments at several schools. By 2013, the university had decided the fund should instead be used for college scholarships.
“I think at the time that we created it, the idea was that there was all kinds of things that students didn’t have access to,” said Simmons, who left Brown in 2012 and now is president of Prairie View A&M University in Texas. “The aim was always to not support the normal things that you do in the public schools, but to add some extra.”
Simmons said she was surprised to learn the fund has struggled to raise money, but she acknowledged that fund-raising priorities can change when a university’s administration changes. Christina Paxson has been president of Brown since 2012.
The university’s endowment has continued to grow under Paxson’s leadership, climbing to a record high of $3.8 billion in 2018. There is no formal agreement with the city to raise $10 million for the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, but Clark said Brown remains committed to securing donations.
At City Hall, the university’s inability to secure donations for the fund has raised the ire of Mayor Jorge Elorza.
Last year, Elorza wrote to Paxson to “express my concern about the pace of the university’s fundraising efforts,” according to a letter obtained through a public records request. He reminded Paxson that the money was meant to support “those disadvantaged by the legacies of slavery.”
“Because Providence youth should not have to wait any longer for critical supports, I am requesting the university honor its historic commitment by raising its annual contribution to a total of $600,000,” Elorza wrote, referring to the amount he says the fund would generate if it had $10 million in it.
Paxson responded with a letter explaining that Brown spends at least $840,000 a year providing direct support for city schools and students, including scholarships for colleges and summer programs.
But much of the annual financial support Brown provides is separate from the university’s $10 million commitment. Clark confirmed that some of the programs Paxson was referring to have been in place since before the fund was created.
Separate from its support for education programs, Brown pays the city more than $6 million a year in property taxes, Clark said, and in payments for properties that aren’t considered taxable because of the university’s nonprofit status.
“We are concerned about a false narrative about our commitment,” Clark said in an e-mail. “No matter your intentions, Brown’s commitment would be reduced to a single data point likely to take a life of its own outside the context of your story.”
The Providence School Department’s challenges go far beyond finances, but the Elorza administration has projected that the school district’s annual budget shortfall could grow to $42 million by 2024. The district slashed $6 million just to balance the current year’s budget.
In June, researchers from Johns Hopkins University issued a report that described the district as riddled with dysfunction and unable to provide a basic education for its 24,000 students.
State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said she wouldn’t send her children to any of the city’s public schools; she’s now in the process of taking over the entire system.
Infante-Green has said she plans to call on nonprofit institutions like Brown and on businesses to support Providence’s schools, but no proposal has emerged.
In other cities with struggling school districts, local colleges have sometimes stepped up to offer support. Since 1998, the University of Pennsylvania has run a public school in Philadelphia for pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students with support from the city and the teachers union. In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins oversees a school.
Clark said the report on Providence schools “made even more clear the urgency for both Brown and others to take action,” but it’s unclear what the university is planning.
City Councilwoman Rachel Miller called it disappointing that Brown has raised only $1.9 million for the Fund for the Education of the Children of Providence, but said she is hopeful the university will expand its support following the state takeover.
“Investing in our students is literally the least they could do,” Miller said.