The Providence School Board voted 4-3 to terminate the contracts of all 1,926 teachers in the district at its Feb. 18 meeting.
The proposal, which originated from Providence Mayor Angel Taveras’ office, was created to provide “flexibility” in addressing the city’s deficit, Taveras wrote in a statement. The city also plans to close some schools in the district as it finalizes its budget. Projections for the Providence Public School District deficit currently approach $40 million.
Taveras wrote that the decision was a “last resort,” adding that most dismissals will be rescinded in coming weeks as the city budget is finalized.
In a press conference following the Feb. 18 meeting, Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers Union, called the decision “shocking,” comparing Taveras to a robber baron.
“This is a political decision to take control and silence workers,” Smith said, adding that Taveras is “waging a war on workers.”
But Taveras wrote in the statement that he intends to work with unions and organized labor to resolve the dispute. “I support the democratic right to organize and have been participating regularly in meetings with our city unions to strengthen our partnerships and find common ground in solving our financial problems,” Taveras wrote.
Smith also criticized the city’s decision to terminate teachers as opposed to laying them off. Teachers who are laid off are still eligible for certain benefits, and decisions are influenced by seniority. But with termination, the district does not need to address seniority, and a teacher who is let go can be completely cut off from benefits.
In particular, Smith addressed the possibility that teachers with seniority could be fired because they would be eligible for higher salaries. He called the plan a way to “circumvent the collective bargaining agreement.”
“If this was a great idea, I think we’d see it implemented in every district in the country,” Smith said.
Philip Gould, professor of English and an appointed member of the Providence School Board, voted against the plan, calling the move to fire all teachers “draconian.”
“I am very worried about what’s going to happen with kids in the remainder of the school year in light of this,” Gould said. But he added that he was not “obtuse” to arguments in favor of the plan. “Those who voted for it, I understood their reasons, and there are strong reasons for and against it,” he said.
Taveras wrote that the city developed the plan because of a state law requiring that teachers learn of possible changes to their employment status by March 1. If that deadline did not exist, he wrote, the city would have had more time to determine what the final budget would be — and, more specifically, which schools to close and which teachers to let go.
“Although the end result would still be fewer schools and fewer teachers next year, the process would have been far less disruptive and painful,” Taveras wrote.
He added that he hopes to get the March 1 deadline changed before next year to avoid similar situations in the future.
Smith said in the press conference that the union has “always” been willing to discuss the deadline. But according to a Feb. 23 article published in the Providence Journal, representatives from the teachers’ union have historically been opposed to legislation postponing the notification deadline. Tim Duffy, executive director of the Rhode Island Association of School Committees, told the ProJo, “Our association and the superintendents’ association have introduced legislation every year to push back the March 1 deadline, and every year, the representatives from the (teachers’ unions) say, ‘You can’t do it.'”
Kenneth Wong, chair of the education department, said that, though he thinks Taveras “has to do this,” he believes the termination of teachers will at least temporarily decrease teacher morale. Wong also called for “transparency” in the process of rescinding terminations, saying the district needed to start planning for next year as soon as possible.
“We want to make sure the teachers who are doing their jobs are not let go,” Wong said.
Eileen Finklestein, a teacher in the Providence Public School District, said the mood among the teachers is currently “anxious.”
“Everyone is concerned,” she said. “Where are they going to work? How are they going to pay their bills?”
The American Federation of Teachers plans to lead a rally protesting the decision at City Hall tomorrow.
— With additional reporting by Kat Thornton