Over the summer, back on August 23rd, 2019, I had the absolute privilege to interview Dan McGowan who is a staff writer for the Boston Globe. I would just like to thank him once again for the honor to have an interview with him from one journalist to another.
Carvalho: What is it that made you want to get into journalism?
McGowan: You know, it’s funny. I think like a lot of young boys, in particular, I played sports growing up and I was like a baseball and basketball kid. I was pretty self-aware in that I’m not going to pitch in the major leagues, and I am not going to play point guard for the [New York] Knicks. So, I just really liked Sports Illustrated, and when I was a kid, ESPN Magazine was just becoming a thing. So, I’ve always thought I like to read, I was a fairly good writer in school. So, it seemed logical to potentially try to be a sportswriter. At ten and twelve years old and I would always say I wanted to be a sportswriter. Even in my high school yearbook my ambition was to be a sportswriter. So, obviously that didn’t work out, but the idea was that writing and being in journalism was the thing I wanted to do. I’ve always knew I wanted to work for a newspaper, which I only accomplished just recently by going to the Globe. So, it was just something I’ve always liked to do, and I thought it was a great way to be able to tell people stories. As I got older and started to pay a little bit closer to politics and things like that, you start to kind of get the bug to be able to break news. So, this is quite literally the only serious thing I’ve ever ever wanted to do. So, I’m lucky to be able to be a reporter.
Carvalho: For the Globe, you write a lot about Providence, and Providence politics, and education, and all that sort of stuff. What is it that caught your interest in that sort of area of expertise and why is that what you choose to write about?
McGowan: Part of it is, well I’ve been at the Globe since April, and they were interested in and came to me when I was at my previous job with Channel Twelve and said “Hey, we’re thinking about moving into Rhode Island, we want to know the lay of the land, and we want to hire local reporters”. So, they had a conversation with me, and I basically just gave them my view of what was happening in the state and what were the hot issues. So, at the time and for virtually my entire career in journalism, I’ve covered Providence, and Providence politics, and so, it was kind of logical to keep that going and we got a little bit of a boost by that whole Providence school report that John Hopkins put out. When I say a boost, it’s obviously not good for the city or for residents of this city to kind of have to deal with such a scathing report and face the realities that are happening in the public schools, but for journalistic purposes for just straight up attention and interest, obviously Providence schools are a really hot story. More broadly, I think that, and I’m not a native Rhode Islander, I grew up in Connecticut, but what I’ve learned in Rhode Island for about the ten, twelve years that I’ve been here, is if you’re into politics, there are two types of people. There are people who are state house people that really follow everything happening on Smith Hill, and then there are city hall people who really love the nitty gritty of Providence politics and they were interested in Buddy Cianci and that sort of empire that oversaw Providence for so, so long. So, honestly for me, if I were to be in one of those two classes, I’m a city hall guy. I think the politics are really fun, I think the impact that politicians and decisions that politicians make on residents in city hall, they touch you more. Literally, they are the ones who are going to raise your taxes. The most obvious taxes are your property tax bill, your car tax, things like that. There are the fascinating politics that happen there. I think the game of it all is something that is really interesting to me. I love elections season, I love being able to think about how the city is moving, and how where votes are, and how you win a mayor’s race, or how you win a city council race here. So, I got lucky because it was kind of the first job, I had here covering local city politics. I never moved away from it at least in the level of the interest. I just find it to be so, so exciting, and I’ve benefited immensely from, the first mayor’s race I’ve ever covered was the hot one in 2010 where Angel Taveras ended up becoming the mayor. It was competitive, it was fun, it was interesting to learn. Four years later I got to cover the race of all races between Buddy Cianci and now Mayor Elorza. So, you got to see the end of a career and soon after the end of Buddy Cianci’s life. So, it’s always kind of stuck with me that he was Rhode Island’s most legendary politician; it’s a fascinating thing. I think that’s always the thing that I find interesting. It happens to be in this moment, it’s not just interesting, but the most important story of 2019: the state is about to take over the schools in Providence. That is unique here, and it just a really fascinating thing and I am honored to be able to explain to people what is happening.
Carvalho: You mentioned the state of Rhode Island taking over the schools in Providence. One of the big things with that is teachers being absent a lot through out the school year. I wanted to get your thoughts on Rhode Island taking control and what do you think should be done to prevent teachers from just taking absent days?
McGowan: This is incredibly complicated. I hate to sound like a politician, but there is no magic bullet here, there is no one thing that solves every problem. Providence has a bunch of unique challenges, and a bunch of difficult challenges. So, when you’re talking about fifty, sixty different languages being spoken in Providence, predominantly we think English and Spanish. But you’re talking about dozens of other languages that are spoken in schools; that’s a real challenge and is not like a lot of other places. In that John Hopkins report, the comparison that everyone wanted to make was to Baltimore, Maryland or Newark, New Jersey. Well, yes in terms of poverty level, the comparisons are fair. But, in Baltimore and Newark, we’re talking about largely an African American population. In Providence, we’re talking about a very different population. We’re talking ninety-one percent white, but predominantly we’re talking Latino or Spanish speakers, a different challenge than other cities, making sure you get teachers who have the ability or certified to be able to teach kinds who are learning English. So, that’s a real challenge. The teacher absences thing is one piece of the many challenges that this district has. I’m not a policy maker, so I have no idea what the answer to this question is. I would say it is noticeable that teachers in Providence just get more sick days in their contract. I think in any profession, mine included, it is not crazy to have ten, fifteen, twenty sick days and if you’re not feeling great on a Monday or a Friday, you wanted to sleep in a little, taking a sick day here or there is reasonable it is just something that happens in every profession, but that does stand out and when we’re talking about serving kids, I think that becomes more of a challenge. Providence teachers get fifteen sick days every year. By comparison, New York, LA, Miami, and much larger school districts, teachers are getting ten days of sick days. So, I think there is a potentially just a logistical thing, but keep in mind, this is what makes all things challenging, there are reasons that things like perks or provisions like sick days get negotiated into union contracts. You can’t look at something, a lot of people write down moments because they’re paying such close attention to Providence say, “Oh just rip up the teacher’s contract and start over”. That’s wonderful to say but guess what. Those teachers are working off of contracts that essentially have built on top of each other for generations. So, here’s where the city or Buddy couldn’t give you a raise twenty years ago, one way to do this is to say, “Hey we’re going to throw you a few extra sick days and we’ll kind of look the other way”. Classic problem in Providence, not for teachers, but for other public employees, “You know what, we can’t give you a raise but we’ll help you with your pension thirty years from now because we’re not going to be here anyway, so who cares”. These are the realities that municipalities all over the country, not just unique to Providence, face. So, I think you shouldn’t try to revisit opening a contract and negotiate, but what a lot of people face in this situation is you look at fifteen problems in Providence and you say, “Well, if you just fix those fifteen problems, clean cut, boom”. That’s not true, that’s not realistic, that’s not how bargaining works. It sounds somewhat sad because at the end of the day this is about kids, and making sure kids can read and do math and things like that, but it is true that all of these things take work, it takes people to agree to things, it takes concessions from everybody. So, my guess is that they will attempt to address it through contract negotiations. The broader question that you asked about what I think about the takeover, my job is not to have an opinion specifically on whether this is a good idea or not; what is abundantly clear both through the John Hopkins report and then my own reporting over the last decade, is that this is a broken system in Providence. The test scores show it, even sometimes more depressing if you look at the student surveys they’re taking, students don’t feel particularly good on their schools. Then you look at the actual physical conditions of these schools and you’re talking about through caving in, and water leaking everywhere in a lot of these schools. It is not fair to those kids, and so, this is going to be really complicated. It does seem like a smart idea to have a new group of people in the state kind of come in and oversee things because you’re getting generations of mayors and city council members and school board members who kind of weren’t able to get the job done. So, there’s something to be said for change, but what I would what, what I think is certainly important is to make sure that there’s community input and that the folks who are taking over do listen to some of the leaders of the past, you have to learn from mistakes, but also, the truth is running a massive school department with a hundred million dollar budget is really hard. So, you do need to learn from some of the good people that have been around for a long time in Providence. So, this is really long and I’m sorry, but that’s kind of my thoughts on this.
Carvalho: One more thing I want to get your thoughts on is that the Jump Bikes are being taken out of Providence. I just want to get your thoughts on that news that broke yesterday.
McGowan: It’s interesting. I think when the bikes came to Providence, I think last September, they were a smashing success. Just so many people renting them and riding them, I felt that the phrase “Jump Bike” or the term “Jump Bike” is a household term here now. That’s really impressive given that a year ago, they weren’t here. So, I think they’re generally good for transportation, or fun and all that kind of stuff. There are challenges, I think it’s wrong morally and just not the truth to suggest that our teenagers in this city are somehow more violent or bad to sort of speak than teenagers in any other community in the country. So, the idea that Providence is just so bad that it couldn’t possibly have these bikes, I think is kind of ridiculous, but the same time, there’s been real, significant issues. You have breaking the bikes, and riding around on them, and you seen vandalism in a couple of cases, and you see assault here or there. So, those are things that the police department needs to address. It makes some sense to pull them off the streets, have some more conversations about how this is going to work. Then, presumably everyone wants to, bring the program back. So, I think it seems to be a step in the right direction to do this pause.