Metro, News

Elorza, teachers union clash at City Hall

Teachers picket for pay raise outside as mayor delivers his ‘State of the City’ address

By
Senior Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Mayor Jorge Elorza responded to the protest by welcoming continued negotiation with the Providence Teachers Union.

Yesterday, in the Council Chambers of City Hall, Mayor Jorge Elorza was scheduled to begin his annual State of the City address at 6 p.m. But by 6 p.m., Elorza still had not made his entrance — and the staircases above and below the third-floor chambers were jam-packed. People chatted and chanted intermittently. Signs were written in English and Spanish, in bright colors and stark black marker. Some of the messages were personal: “Elorza … you were EDUCATED by PVD schools … Don’t throw us under the BUS!”

Hundreds of teachers picketed the address.

“We’re here to let the mayor know that what he has given us in negotiation terms is not fair,” Rachel Greenberg, a teacher at Asa Messer Elementary School, told The Herald.

Ken Drake of Esek Hopkins Middle School told The Herald that the proposed three-year contract does not include a pay raise other than a 0.5 percent hike in the final year of the agreement.“That’s not a raise, that’s a joke,” he said. The mayor’s presence on a charter school board constitutes a “conflict of interest,” he added.

Elorza’s speech started over 20 minutes late as a result of the picketing. Despite being booed as he entered the chamber, Elorza began his speech with a doggedly positive portrayal of Providence as a city that has exemplified a “show of unity” in welcoming refugees, deliberately broadcasting a political message that is contrary to President Trump’s position on the issue.

“For the past three years, we’ve been continually reminded of the power of the people,” Elorza said, as the chants of “shame on you” continued to reverberate throughout the chambers from outside.

Elorza addressed the issue of education early on in his speech. He described his initiatives as always crafted in response to the voices of the city. “We asked the public, ‘What is missing from our schools?’” Elorza said. “We heard that our students and teachers want facilities that support 21st century learning.”

Elorza referenced his pledge in August 2017 to dedicate $400 million over the span of 10 years to school “facilities … because our students and teachers demand it and, frankly, because they deserve it,” he said. “While classrooms themselves are important, so are the tools we give our students to learn with.”

Prior to the address, Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro gave an impassioned speech of her own to the crowd of protestors.

“On January 3, our mayor  boasted a $5.4 million surplus for the city of Providence. Sixteen days later, he sent one of his negotiators to the table to say ‘sorry for ya, we don’t have any money for teachers,’” Calabro said.

The crowd clamored with displeasure.

“Teachers touch more lives than mayors,” called one voice from the crowd.

“Absolutely. Actually, teachers impact more lives than anybody. We make mayors,” Calabro responded.

Calabro explicitly recognized how Rep. John Lombardi, D-Pawtucket, Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, D-Providence and Sen. Dominick Ruggerio, D-Providence “would not cross the picket line” in solidarity with teachers.

A fair deal would mean “consistency,” Greenberg told The Herald. Elorza “has given us a variety of different people who are on the team to negotiate, but we have come with one team every time,” she added.

“I find it to be kind of double-speak, and I find it to be insulting. … In order for us to be able to move forward, the mayor needs to be honest with himself and his representation of the city’s finances,” Calabro told The Herald.

In a press conference following the address, Elorza spoke of an “opportunity for a transformational contract” and emphasized his commitment to “our kids and our schools.” He said that teachers were given a raise eight months ago, and that “when you look at the long-term city’s finances, we simply don’t have the money” for another raise. “We have a surplus in the city, we have a rainy day fund; all of that is going to evaporate in a heartbeat unless we watch our costs going forward,” he added.

Elorza characterized the picketing as “democracy in action” and said he is open to conversation and continued negotiation, though nothing has been scheduled yet.

“I’m hoping for a phone call that says, ‘Let’s get back to the table and start conversations again,’” Calabro told The Herald.