Update : Rhode Island

Providence Teachers Contract Signed Amid Controversy, Compromise,  and Politics

Beth I. Gandelman, UWS Correspondent

PROVIDENCE — On Aug. 9, the Providence Teachers Unions voted 868 to 79 in favor of an agreement that calls for $53 million in spending cuts over three years, to help close an estimated $110-million budget shortfall. They also voted to approve a three-year contract that guarantees that every fired teacher will be returned to the district in exchange for certain concessions. Nine R.I. school systems remain without contracts.

The vote culminates the end of long and controversial contractual wrangling that occurs in the wider national context of ongoing struggles over not only teachers and public worker contracts and pensions, but the very basis for collective-bargaining in the United States as a whole.

According to the Providence Teachers Union site
, the ratification of the agreement now means that a previously filed lawsuit over the dismissals will be dropped.

After pink-slipping every teacher in the Providence School Department, members of the AFT Local 958 filed the lawsuit to protest the remaining terminations, while the teachers’ contracts were being renegotiated. The teachers claimed that those who lost their positions were wrongfully terminated, and included many teachers on medical or maternity leaves. In late June, those teachers received notices from the School Department stating: “I regret to inform you that you were not paired with a Match assignment for the 2011-2012 school year. As a result, your employment with the Providence School Department ends on the last day of the 2011-2012 school years, in keeping with a prior vote of the Providence School Board.” He then encourages those teachers to “apply to vacant positions as they become available…” Many of those teachers were employed in the five schools that are closing.

The Providence Teachers Union challenged whether the state education commissioner has the authority to order school districts to eliminate seniority as the sole means of assigning teachers.

Administrators Union Jilted

In another development, the Providence School Board voted to dismantle the Administrators’ Union representing 105 Providence school administrators. The School Board has the legal authority to sever their relationship with that union since the contract ended on June 30, 2010 and was never renegotiated. (They are the only school system in R.I. to have an administrators union.) For the past 35 years, those directors, principals and assistant principals received the same benefits as the teachers.

According to Stephen Kane, executive secretary of the Association of Providence Public School and Staff Administrators, his “colleagues feel terrible. They got used to certain protections.” Kane believes it is an attempt to reduce wage and benefits packages for many high-paid administrators. Now the School Board will be able to negotiate all salaries individually. He believes those negotiations may become politically motivated in the future. They “will be left to the whim of the School Board. Of course it’s going to get personal. It’s going to get personal,” he said.

The Administrators' union was formed in 1976 when the school board fired all of the central office staff. The administrators responded by forming a union affiliated with the AFL-CIO and successfully petitioned the R.I. General Assembly for the right to collective bargaining. A year later, the Providence Teachers Union appealed and the legislature repealed its right to collective bargaining.

Board President, Superintendent Resign

Since the time of the layoffs, suggested by Providence Mayor Angel Taveras to the Providence School Board, President Kathleen Crain resigned effective immediately (on July 11), becoming the second board member to leave the Board among great dissention with the mayor. Crain claimed that Taveras has “stripped the school board of its authority.” Providence Superintendent Thomas M. Brady, appointed in 2008, also resigned in July

The School Board has since named Susan F. Lusi as interim superintendent, who recently left the helm in Portsmouth, R.I. Lusi is the fifth superintendent in ten years to lead the state’s largest school system, serving 45,000 students. She plans to apply for the permanent position, according to the Providence Journal.

The bill taking away collective bargaining control from the School Board was submitted by Rhode Island State Senator Paul Jabour (D-Providence) passed on June 30, just days before the city was expected to negotiate with the Teachers. “I’m shocked the legislature would create a state law because an official body disagrees with the Mayor’s office. It’s clear this is a power play,” Crain said after the bill was ratified. Sen. Jabour claims he was not asked by Mayor Taveras to file the bill in a Providence Journal report.

Backing Sen. Jabor’s bill, Mayor Taveras said that “only those elected by taxpayers should be responsible for signing union contracts.” In most cities and towns, school board members are elected by the taxpayers, however, in Providence they are appointed by the Mayor. The school board sent a letter to the Mayor’s office in late June saying they would not approve of any collective-bargaining agreements negotiated by the Mayor’s office unless they were included in the deliberations. According to Crain, the Mayor replied by saying the Board could only become involved in the discussion of one or two issues.

Jabour said that he was concerned that the School Board would not approve the teachers’ contract currently under negotiation. However, Providence City Councilor Sam Zurier said that the bill eliminating the School Board’s ability to ratify contracts removes an important check and balance from the collective-bargaining process. In a letter to his constituents, Zurier said that the Jabour bill was based on a false premise: that the School Board reportedly would not ratify a teachers’ contract negotiated by the Mayor Taveras’ administration. But Zurier wrote that the School Board “has approved every single collective-bargaining agreement proposed over decades,” according to a Providence Journal article.

Zurier elaborated, “I believe that it is good public policy for the School Board to approve collective-bargaining contracts (especially for teachers) because the School Board is responsible for developing education in our city, and the teachers’ contract has a profound impact on that policy.

A frustrated Crain stated: “I joined the School Board because I believe that education is supposed to level the playing field. But over the past six months under Mayor Taveras’ administration, I’ve come to think differently. Public education is not about children; it’s about politics, job and power,” Crain said. She encouraged parents to take control over their children’s education, pointing out that politicians don’t. “This is a city and state built on patronage,” she added. “I’ve had it! Public education in Providence and Rhode Island is broken.”

The final version of the bill, enacted by R.I. Governor Chafee last week, effectively strips the School Board of its authority to sign any and all contracts. That power now belongs to the mayor of Providence.

Providence Teachers Oppose School Systems New Hiring Criteria

A recent letter from Providence Teachers’ Union President Steven F. Smith outlined the teacher’s opposition to recently imposed hiring criteria. According to Smith, “The Providence Teachers Union (PTU) opposes the administration’s Criterion-Based Hiring (CBH) system, not because we are opposed to criteria, but because there is no criteria. As a result, teachers have experienced numerous inequities and injustices while seeking employment under CBH: In one instance, a National Board certified teacher with 19 years of experience in Providence with excellent evaluations was deemed less suitable for a position than another candidate, a teacher without any experience who had only recently graduated from college. Under CBH, highly qualified Middle School Endorsed teachers were denied the opportunity to interview for positions at the new Bishop middle school and Perry middle school. The interview system is flawed and inconsistent, allowing some candidates to interview by phone, while others are asked to present 40-minute PowerPoint presentations. These are just a few examples highlighting the flaws of CBH.”