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Hearings address Prov. teacher contracts

Staff Writer
Thursday, February 24, 2011

At a Providence City Council hearing Tuesday night, Amit Jain ’12 presented chart after chart ranking Providence among the worst school districts in Rhode Island. He aimed to provide ideas to improve the Providence Teachers Union contract, which will expire in August.

The contract hearings are unprecedented — the city council does not normally involve itself in contract negotiations with the union. Councilman and former Providence School Board member Sam Zurier, who organized the hearings, said they are intended to “get out of the comfort zone of incremental change.”

Tuesday’s hearing was the second of a series of four held by the subcommittee on finance and education. It fell on the same day all Providence teachers were issued dismissal notices alerting them that their jobs could be in jeopardy.

When approached by a Providence teacher at the hearing, Zurier said he was not aware of the notices. But he said the move likely gives the school district maximum flexibility in laying off teachers. The school board will hold a meeting today for teachers to voice their concerns.

The subcommittee’s first meeting was Feb. 17. Providence Teachers Union President Steven Smith, Superintendent Tom Brady and School Board President Kathleen Crain were invited to answer questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the current contract and to reflect on what they wanted to see in the new contract. Smith was the only one of the three to attend the Feb. 17 hearing — Brady and Crain were in Denver for a conference on labor management.

Smith, who did not attend Tuesday’s hearing, has expressed concern that asking negotiating parties to come up with a “wish list” for the new contract would lead to adversarial talks in which opposing sides are more concerned with their demands than with student performance. The Providence Teachers Union and school board have been noted for their unusually collaborative system of collective bargaining, according to the Providence Journal.

At the start of the hearing, Zurier emphasized cooperation in finding solutions for Providence’s ailing school system. No negotiations will take place in public, he said.

“The council is trying to bargain so that more people are satisfied,” Zurier told The Herald. He pointed to the ineffectiveness of last year’s state mandate that all teacher assignments be issued without regard for seniority as an example of the importance of bargaining. The Providence Teachers Union sued the city for enforcing the mandate, which they argued violated their contract.

The terms of the contract directly affect the quality of education in Providence. The current contract stipulates a system giving senior teachers an advantage in hiring and firing, the process for evaluating teacher performance and the practice of bumping.

If one teaching position becomes available, teachers across the district are shuffled — or bumped — to ensure that the most senior teachers hold the prime jobs, Zurier told The Herald. Bumping can lead to a cascade of layoffs.

“If you choose to remove a French teacher at Mt. Pleasant, teaching assignments all the way down to the elementary school level can be disrupted,” he said. “This means serious discontinuities in students’ educations.”

Evaluating and retraining teachers is tied to teacher assignment.

“How can we take poor teachers out of the system if there’s a seniority-based system?” Zurier said. “Who gets laid off?”

The city also faced a $57 million deficit last year, and the school district is confronting a $40 million shortfall for the coming academic year. This does not necessarily mean teachers will lose the modest salary increases they gained in the last contract negotiated in 2007, Zurier said.

“We’re going to study how to increase teacher salaries by cutting costs on other things in the contract,” Zurier said. In return, the city could seek higher contributions to health and pension plans from teachers, Zurier said.

Part of that process began Tuesday night. Jain, an intern for Zurier, examined teacher contracts in 36 school districts across Rhode Island, including Providence, and compared their provisions.

The Providence Public School Department placed in the bottom third in all categories of the assessment. At 181 days, the district has the shortest work year in the state. Teacher salaries rank 27 out of 32, according to Jain’s analysis. Providence teachers are required to show up five minutes before class and leave five minutes after, and have no requirement to give parent-teacher conferences or attend a conference requested by a parent.

Zurier also noted that the city may be out of compliance with the minimum school day length mandated by the state. In 2008, the state required that all secondary school teachers have one to two hours per week of planning time. The current contract does not allow the district to extend the teacher work day. Instead, students are now sent home early on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

Despite the report’s discouraging findings, the meeting also contained a note of optimism. Committee members recognized that many Providence teachers went above and beyond the requirements and mentioned two “ideal” teacher contracts — in the New Haven, Conn. and ABC United districts in California ­— that could serve as models for Providence.

Councilwoman Sabina Matos ­— who is not on the subcommittee — attended the hearing because her children are entering public school.

“Right now, I believe (my son) is going to get a better education at a charter school in Pawtucket than right here in his own neighborhood,” she told The Herald. “What happened here today is a piece of the puzzle. We also need to look at curriculum and administration.”

Zurier reminded the committee that the union has in the past expressed the need to improve teacher quality and eliminate the seniority-based assignment system.

“Maybe this will finally be the year that these noble sentiments will provide tangible changes,” he said.

The next hearing will be March 2 at 4:30 p.m. at City Hall. Matthew Clarkin, Providence’s internal auditor and former chief financial officer of the school department, will discuss how to increase teacher salaries without increasing the overall cost of the contract.

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