Learn365RI a political hot potato

Cranston funds undermined; Johnston opts out

Posted 5/15/24

Johnston is the only Ocean State municipality not participating in Gov. Dan McKee’s Learn365RI initiative.

According to McKee’s Press Secretary Olivia DaRocha, “38 out of 39 …

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Learn365RI a political hot potato

Cranston funds undermined; Johnston opts out


Johnston is the only Ocean State municipality not participating in Gov. Dan McKee’s Learn365RI initiative.

According to McKee’s Press Secretary Olivia DaRocha, “38 out of 39 cities and towns have signed the Learn365RI municipal compact.”

In Cranston, the Republican mayor recently tried, but failed to get a mostly Democratic City Council to support a community center, funded in part by Learn365RI grants.

While intended as an educational and community grant program, the initiative has become a political hot potato, getting tossed back and forth by office-holders of both parties in raging debates over ongoing post-pandemic personnel and program costs.

1 of 39

In Johnston, Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr., a Democrat, has refused the town’s participation in Learn365RI. McKee is Polisena’s former boss, and also a fellow Democrat.

“Similar to the federal COVID ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) funds that just ended, resulting in layoffs in not just Johnston but throughout the state, Learn365 will eventually suffer the same fate,” Polisena said earlier this year.

According to Johnston Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard DiLullo Jr., “44 total teachers and support staff” were essentially laid off due to the expiration of ESSER funding. On Tuesday night, the Johnston School Committee voted unanimously to recall 21 of the 44 educators.

Polisena confirmed that Johnston will not be vying for a slice of this latest funding pie.

“Changing the status quo is more effective than doing literally more of the same,” Polisena argued. “In almost all circumstances, temporary grant money should be used for one time capital projects that do not have a recurring cost, not creating new programs and hiring new employees.”

Political Bedfellows

In Cranston, however, Mayor Ken Hopkins, a Republican, tried, in vain, to get his majority Democrat City Council to accept funding from the Learn365RI pool of available grants to build a community center. The new community center was set for construction on Duckworth Street on property now occupied by a baseball field, next to the Pastore Youth Center.

“Mayor Hopkins presented a sound proposal to the city council to construct a 6,000 square foot community center that would be fully funded from at least $7.1 million of federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds and one that would have zero cost to Cranston taxpayers,” explained Hopkins’s Chief of Staff Anthony C. Moretti. “The proposed site would be optimally located in a neighborhood whose residents would most benefit from the services that the center would offer: education, jobs and heath monitoring.”

A bi-partisan plan to accept grant funding and appropriate ARPA funds, supported by Republican Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli and Councilman John Donegan, a Democrat, failed 5-2 in March. Council President Jessica Marino and Councilman Robert Ferri, both Democrats, vocally opposed the idea.

“Four months ago we did ask for a plan, we did ask how much it was going to cost, we brought those questions up,” Ferri said at the time of the vote, according to the Cranston Herald’s published reports. “There was no concrete plan from CCAP or anybody else, where’s the plan? Where is it?”

The mayor’s office saw the situation as a win-win for the city — when the effort failed, they saw fierce allegedly partisan politics at work.

“Mayor Hopkins presented the city council with a letter of intent from the Comprehensive Community Action Program (CCAP) whereby this group would provide all staffing and programming at the facility, also, at no cost the city,” Moretti explained. “The city would only be responsible for incidental maintenance costs. The mayor is astounded that the city council has denied all of our residents, many of which are vulnerable, these services and the opportunities to benefit from these much needed programs to improve their quality of life.”

Hopkins’ office estimated the community center would likely require around $10,000 in annual funding from the city.

“What is bewildering is that the cost of the facility and the services provided would be of no charge to the taxpayers except for certain incidental maintenance costs,” Moretti argued. “As prescribed in the grant opportunity for this facility, the city would be obligated for education, jobs and health monitoring services for five years. If that programming proves successful, those services can continue or the facility can then be used by the city for any form of services to the public. It is very unfortunate that the city council did no see fit to support this once in a generation opportunity for our residents.”


It’s no secret there’s a political rift between Polisena and McKee. They’ve traded barbs over soft funding programs like Learn365RI, as well as hard, urgent topics like post-flood response efforts. When Polisena felt McKee was under-responsive to flooding needs in Johnston, the town’s mayor went to his contacts in the federal government (ultimately securing temporary permission to access flood-trapped Belfield Drive residents with a make-shift exit off Interstate 295 South).

Since Polisena’s inauguration in early 2023, McKee has stopped attending major events in town. And Polisena has been vocal about his decision not to participate in Learn365RI.

“As you know, signing the compact does not commit a community to any financial expenditures — signing the compact means that a community is committed to working together to improve educational outcomes and increasing 3 main metrics: RICAS scores, student attendance and FAFSA completion,” DaRocha wrote via email. “All Learn365RI funding opportunities are opt-in.”

McKee’s office recently distributed reminders to cities and town reminding them of the latest application deadline for “nearly $4 million in Learn365RI grants.”

“We know that there is an urgent need to address the pandemic’s impact on learning and help our students compete with their peers in neighboring states as we recover from that impact,” according to DaRocha. “We also know that in order to reach those goals, we must supplement the important work being done in our schools with expanded out-of-school learning opportunities for our students which is at the heart of Learn365RI.”

Latest Round

The latest round of Learn365RI grant funding ended on May 3.

McKee and the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) announced nearly $4 million in available grant money, to support “expanding out of school learning opportunities.”

Johnston won’t be getting a dime — Cranston, to be determined.

Rather than compete for Learn365RI funding for afterschool programs, Polisena said Johnston schools will be focusing on the hours between the day’s opening bell and dismissal.

“Instead (of Learn365RI), both the town and school department are focused on improving in-school learning during in-school hours with new school construction and curriculum that will help students both academically and with life skills,” Polisena explained.

In a press release, McKee urged Ocean State cities and towns to apply for funding.

“We know that Rhode Island students need more educational opportunities to overcome the impact of the pandemic and compete with our neighboring states,” McKee said. “The Learn365RI grants support local efforts outside of traditional classroom time and to tailor their strategies to community needs.”

His administration urged cities and towns “to partner with local education agencies and/or community-based organizations.”

“We know that extended learning opportunities beyond school are crucial in our work to accelerate learning and improve academic outcomes statewide,” RIDE Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green said in the press release. “We encourage communities to apply for these grants and further support our students.”

Learn365RI, hot, potato


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