EAST PROVIDENCE — In a pointed Letter to the Editor to run in the July 25 edition of The East Providence Post, Rep. Helio Melo (D-Dist. 64, East Providence) questioned both Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s decision to appoint Eva Mancuso as the new Commissioner of the State Board of Higher Education and the process behind.
The Chairman of the House Committee on Finance minced few words, noting his concerns about the position date back over a year and that those concerns came to fruition with Gov. Chafee’s recent appointment of Ms. Mancuso to the role.
Rep. Melo’s letter is as follows:
To the editor,
As Chairman of the House Finance Committee, I feel it is appropriate to offer some perspective on the appointment of Eva-Marie Mancuso as “interim” Commissioner of Higher Education.
In 2012, the Assembly enacted a plan to restructure the state’s education governance system to compel a much more consistent and coordinated approach to educating our children from kindergarten through college. I am frustrated that more than 13 months later , we are presented with this “interim” solution. By this time, interim solutions should have been winding down not just starting!
During the summer and fall of 2012, I expressed my concerns to the Chafee administration that a smooth transition to the new Board of Education would be affected by the apparent slow pace of identifying and selecting its new members. That period would have also been the time to identify someone, internal or external, to shepherd the early stages of the reorganization. Instead the Board appointments were not even announced until January 2013, with the confirmation process extending into March. There appeared to be no other decisive steps taken to ensure that the restructuring would not be similarly delayed.
The legislation clearly called for a separate and distinct Commissioner of Higher Education; the position was also funded in last year’s state budget. Indeed that position chairs the five-member executive committee, which includes the presidents of the three schools and the Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education and is charged with advising the Board on policy and other matters.
What options did Chairwoman Mancuso and others consider regarding finding a new commissioner? Why wasn’t an expert in education management and policy immediately brought in to assist the Chairwoman with the complex task for which she accepted responsibility to oversee? To avoid losing momentum, this expert could have been given a 6-12 month full-time appointment to help identify the best path forward and any legislative action required. An outsider’s fresh perspective, free from the inevitable internal conflicts that occur in any reorganization, would have gone a long way towards facilitating this. Rhode Island has a long history of excellent service from the citizens appointed to its boards and commissions, but no one expects a volunteer board member to be doing the work of full time staff.
In testimony before our House Finance Committee on April 23, 2013, Chairwoman Mancuso said she hired an expert to consult on the restructuring, in which she was deeply involved. The scope of the expert’s responsibility appeared to be limited, though. She suggested the potential for altering the new structure and the role of the Board’s chair, but indicated the need for additional time to submit her recommendations.
Months later, we learn that the plan is for Chairwoman Mancuso to assume the critical role of commissioner, and have someone else lead the Board. I am sure that the she is a fine attorney and takes seriously her charge to lead the Board, and I admire her commitment. This latest detour, however, is simply not the answer.
Some eagerly seize the opportunity to fault the legislation that created the unified Board of Education each time something goes awry in its execution. I stand behind the General Assembly’s assessment that the status quo was failing our students, and more than a year later, it is clearer than ever that bold, expert and decisive leadership is needed.
The time for foot-dragging is over. Bring in a proven expert as interim commissioner whose primary job is to design and execute this restructuring and develop plans for other long term changes that need legislative action. The process to select a permanent higher education commissioner should run concurrently and begin without further delay.
Rep. Helio Melo
D-Dist. 64, East Providence
House Finance Committee Chairman