Providence parents vent about public schools at forum

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Angry parents voiced exasperation at an open forum Wednesday night about the hiring and firing of Rhode Island public school teachers based on seniority. Seven East Side officials listened and tried to address parents’ concerns at the forum, which was sponsored by the East Side Public Education Coalition and the Parent Teacher Organization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School, where the event was held.

State Rep. Edith Ajello, D-Dist. 3, Rep. David Segal, D-Dist. 2, House Majority Leader Gordon Fox, D-Dist. 4, Sen. Rhoda Perry P’91, D-Dist. 3, Ward 3 Providence City Councilman Kevin Jackson, Ward 1 City Councilman Seth Yurdin and Ward 2 City Councilman Cliff Wood all fielded questions from moderator and East Side resident Michelle McKenzie and the audience about school funding, the possible consolidation of school districts and teacher health care.

Audience members became most incensed when speaking about the process of “bumping,” when school districts fire more-junior teachers when the district budget has not been finalized. Some are later hired over the summer when funding officially becomes available. Schools are not allowed to rehire based on performance, participants at the meeting said, so younger but possibly more qualified teachers are let go if the budget decreases.

The officials agreed that bumping is a problem at Rhode Island schools. “It has to stop,” Wood said. “It tears the culture of a school apart. The progress we’ve made will be over in a flash if we don’t fix this problem.”

But parents were skeptical that true change could be made.

“Why can’t someone just stand up and say, ‘I’m going to be the one to sponsor this?’ ” Kira Greene asked. Audience members responded with cheers and applause.

Fox said the rules protecting more senior teachers from firing are in place to prevent corruption, and the system cannot simply be scrapped – it must be replaced with a new, more flexible system that also safeguards against favoritism. He added that union contracts around the state are based on the principle of teacher tenure.

Sara Rapport, the lawyer for the Providence School Board, disagreed with Fox’s claim that the state legislature could not repeal certain teacher-hiring laws without further complicating the situation. She said the legislature easily could repeal state law that requires firings based on seniority when an area’s population decreases.

Repealing that rule would help “to take the straitjacket off municipalities,” she said, by allowing more site-based management.

Fox said he understood the need to improve schools by improving teacher quality. “Teachers matter, and we have to give them the tools to do their job,” he said.

After the forum, parents expressed frustration that the officials had not committed to pushing for specific changes.

“They’re just thinking, listening, thinking, listening,” said Kim Clark, whose 12-year-old attends Nathanael Greene Middle School in Providence. “If we can’t fix the obvious issues that everyone agrees on … nothing of substance has changed.”

The current state of the economy means fewer families are able to afford private school, so they are sending their children to public schools instead, said Warren Licht, who has children at both King and Greene schools.

Bill Ibelle, a member of the East Side coalition’s steering committee and a parent of two children at Greene, said he was pleased with the forum.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “It’s good to see a lot of audience participation.” The audience was “informed” and “orderly,” and there were “not a lot of people talking who didn’t know what they were talking about,” he added.

“That’s a good thing,” Ibelle said.

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