Why did they fire the Providence teachers?

March 1, 2011

Brian Chidester, a teacher and member of the Bristol-Warren Education Association, reports on the assault facing teachers in Rhode Island's capital.

CITY OFFICIALS in Providence, R.I., have announced the mass firing of all 1,926 teachers in Providence schools, effective at the end of the school year.

The announcement came on February 22 from Providence Public School Department (PPSD) Superintendent Tom Brady and Mayor Angel Taveras. It was approved in a 4-3 vote of the PPSD School Board, which isn't elected by residents, but appointed by the mayor's office. All of its current members were appointed by the previous mayor, David Cicilline, whose administration attacked all sectors of Providence's public employees.

While the mayor claims that most teachers will get their jobs back, he also announced the closing an undetermined number of schools. As a consolation, Taveras claims that the closures won't be on the scale of the school closures in Detroit, which plans to close half of its schools and projects class sizes of up to 60 students.

"This is a back-door Wisconsin," Providence Teachers Union (PTU) President Steve Smith told the Providence Journal, referring to Republican Gov. Scott Walker's legislation to gut collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers and impose deep cuts in pay and benefits on workers.

Teachers across the country are facing a multi-pronged assault
Teachers across the country are facing a multi-pronged assault (Seth Sawyers)

Taveras and Brady claim that the mass firing is necessary because of projected budget shortfalls in the coming year--and the need for "flexibility" in handling the crisis. The city of Providence has a $57 million deficit for the current fiscal year, though the school department's budget is balanced. That is projected to change next year, however, when increased health care and pension costs, combined with the loss of about $14 million in federal stimulus funds, will create a $40 million hole in the school department's budget.

Taveras told the Providence Journal that "putting Providence back on solid financial footing will require shared sacrifice across our community." But this "shared sacrifice" is clearly aimed at teachers, workers and the poor.

Local funding for the schools comes from local property taxes, but while Providence has some of the highest property tax rates in the state, almost 60 percent of land in the city is held by "nonprofit" entities. Thus, much of the high-rent property on the East Side is completely untaxed--because it belongs to "nonprofit" Brown University.

Many see the firings as an outright union-busting attack, particularly aimed at destroying seniority protections that keep teachers from being bullied and scapegoated.

The attack began in October 2009, when Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist announced that seniority would no longer be the "sole" criterion in hiring decisions. Last fall, the PPSD stopped using seniority altogether in hiring decisions, instead implementing a process that involves an interview and submission of a lesson plan and writing sample. This prompted the PTU to file a lawsuit against the change that is still unresolved.

The change in hiring policy was also a factor in contract negotiations. The last contract expired in 2010, but was extended (with no raise for teachers) for another year, pending resolution of the issue of seniority in hiring.

That fact made the mass dismissal particularly infuriating to teachers. Teachers will not be laid off; under state law, laid-off teachers must be recalled in order of seniority. The fact that the teachers were fired means that, ostensibly, they will have to be rehired through an interview process.

The full ramifications of the firings are still unclear. But some of the possibilities are clear. Entire teaching staffs from closed schools could be shut out of positions at other schools. The firings will likely be used to dispose of a pool of long-term substitute teachers within the district--this pool consists of teachers whose schools were closed last year, but who couldn't be placed in other positions.

For certain, the school officials' move will certainly have a chilling effect on any teacher who wants to oppose any of the district's attacks or "reforms."

THE FIRING prompted an angry response from teachers, many of whom filled the fieldhouse at the Providence Career and Technical Academy for two meetings on February 24. The first meeting was an afternoon meeting between administrators and teachers, closed to the media and the public.

Superintendent Brady started the meeting with an attempt to deflect teacher anger from himself, placing the blame instead on the city budget. However, when he opened the floor to questions and comments from teachers, the sense of betrayal and anger was palpable. Teacher after teacher took to the mic to express their sense of degradation, and the difficulties this will bring in dealing both with students and building administrators.

One teacher talked about how building administrators would abuse their power in the new situation. "Administrators should also be fired," the teacher said. "Their skin isn't on the line, so they're talking at us, not to us."

In a heartbreaking statement, one teacher with 23 years in the system who found herself placed in the long-term sub pool, said, "I will lose my retirement--and my house!"

Yet another teacher added, "We the union are supposed to be dealing cooperatively. I don't think we've ever dealt cooperatively--we've given up everything."

The response continued at the School Board meeting that night, which was open to the public--although a number of teachers didn't show up, having been told that there would be no public comment. This wasn't true, and at least 30 people spoke during public comment--many more were cut off due to time constraints.

One language teacher made a connection between the events overseas and the current conflict in Providence: "As we have revolution in the Middle East, we have counter-revolution in the U.S." Another teacher talked about the courage needed to speak out against what is going on: "Anybody in power does not want to hire people who will challenge policy. We are the enemy [to them]."

While many teachers expressed shock and anger, the overwhelming demand was for teachers to be laid off instead of fired. This, of course, would force the PPSD to recall teachers in order of seniority.

The fact that people adapted a less severe, but still devastating, solution reflected a lack of clarity about how to raise demands--and especially a lack of leadership from the union.

The final speaker of the night was Classical High School teacher Anna Kuperman, who said: "I felt angry and attacked--if attacked, I will fight back. We will not be able to do everything [in the classroom] that needs to be done because we need to organize and fight back." Kuperman spoke out against not just the firings, but also the prospect of layoffs.

While some school board members expressed opposition to the firings, others tried to pass the buck, claiming they were given only three days to come up with $40 million in cuts. One school board member showed her lack of concern for what was going on by texting throughout the majority of public comment session, even though speakers commented on this and people were yelling from the crowd for her to stop. At the end of the night, the board voted 4-3 to carry out the mass dismissal.

THE MASSIVE protests in Wisconsin show the hope for challenging this attack on teachers.

Of course, Providence isn't like Wisconsin in two major ways. First, the main union-buster isn't a Tea Party Republican, but a Latino Democrat--the first Latino mayor of Providence, who received broad support from unions and progressives in his election bid last fall.

Taveras' election in 2010--with 81 percent of the vote in the general election--was heralded by progressives and even the conservative Providence Journal for "bucking the national trend" of victories for Republicans. According to Democratic supporters, this portended a shift to the left, one in favor of the unions.

What this year's attack underscores is the fact that austerity and budget-cutting is a bipartisan project. Taveras, of course, was angry with the comparison with Scott Walker in Wisconsin. "I am not a union-buster but a realist," he told a local TV station. "Any comparison to Wisconsin is unfair and quite frankly disgusting." But of course, the comparison is completely apt, and teachers and activists need to make it loud and clear.

Another way Providence isn't like Wisconsin is how union leaders have responded to the crisis.

Over the past two years, as attacks have mounted on Rhode Island teachers, there has been a sense of growing bitterness--expressed most obviously during the firing of teachers in nearby Central Falls last spring, with the vocal support of Barack Obama. Hundreds of teachers turned out to solidarity rallies and later to a forum held by Education Commissioner Gist. That forum was taken over by the teachers' anger, and Gist was forced to listen.

Noticeably absent in this were Providence teachers, who comprise one-sixth of the state's teaching staff. While teachers in Central Falls and East Providence faced attacks on their working conditions and pay, the leadership of the PTU was busy working with the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) to support its application for Race to the Top (RTTT) funds.

The PTU has also been working with RIDE and the PPSD to implement wide-ranging reforms in the lowest-performing schools, and establish a more stringent and punitive evaluation system for teachers. The PTU signed on to the RTTT application in the first round, and opened the door for the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers to sign on in the second round.

While fighting the attack on seniority, the PTU has been in lockstep with other reforms--and completely silent on the numerous attacks on teachers in the state. A look at these "reforms" makes crystal clear how harmful their collaboration has been.

As part of RTTT, RIDE unveiled a new evaluation system that is clearly aimed at undercutting seniority and making it easy to fire teachers. This system, first announced last summer, has undergone numerous revisions and is clearly being rolled out with haste. The system was originally meant to be in place for the 2011-12 school year, but had to be postponed to 2012-13 when no district in the state would voluntarily pilot it in spring 2011.

The original system called for teacher evaluations to be based 51 percent on "student achievement data"--i.e., test scores. It also called for any teacher with a rating of "ineffective" or "minimally effective" for two years in a row to be terminated, effectively ending their career in Rhode Island.

Those specifications have been revised, so that the "student achievement" section is part of a complicated non-numerical matrix that determines a teacher's effectiveness rating. In addition, teachers with a low rating are now supposed to be given professional development training, and can only be terminated after five years of low ratings.

Nonetheless, the stage has been set to undermine seniority and to put evaluations on a punitive basis.

The implications of this are clear in Central Falls, where an agreement was reached before the end of the last school year to give teachers back their jobs at Central Falls High School. While this was touted as a victory for teachers, it was deeply flawed--in return for their jobs, the teachers had to accept all the terms that had originally been demanded of them by Central Falls Superintendent Fran Gallo, with the backing of Commissioner Gist.

This included precisely the original, punitive version of RIDE's evaluation system, carried out by outside evaluators and completely lacking in protections for teachers. As a result, 11 Central Falls teachers are being fired for poor performance--including some who have been vocal opponents of the new regime in the high school that resulted from last year's reorganization. Clearly, the evaluation system is a way for administrators to eliminate opposition.

The rot goes even deeper--at the same time that Central Falls teachers were under attack in spring 2010, the East Providence Education Association was awaiting the outcome of a lawsuit against their own district. Their contract had expired in October 2008--but rather than continue to let them work under the old contract, as stipulated by state law, the East Providence School Committee unilaterally imposed a 5 percent pay cut and 20 percent healthcare co-pays on teachers.

The committee claimed its actions were supported by another state law that prohibits school districts from passing budgets they can't pay for. The hypocrisy, of course, is that the East Providence schools had run in the red for several years prior. It was only when they could use it as a weapon against teachers that the EPSC decided they had to comply with the law.

So the question in the lawsuit was: Which law takes precedence--the law maintaining expired contracts, or the law requiring balanced budgets?

As spring 2010 wore on, with open conflicts in Central Falls (where teachers are affiliated to the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers) and East Providence (where teachers are affiliated with the National Education Association of Rhode Island), the two parent unions vowed solidarity, refusing to endorse Gist's RTTT application until she stepped in to resolve both conflicts in favor of teachers.

In the event, Gist brokered the deal in Central Falls, and the RIFT endorsed her RTTT application the next day. Shortly thereafter, a judge ruled in favor of the East Providence School Committee against the teachers, setting the stage for any school district to plead poverty and impose pay cuts on teachers.

Through all of this, the PTU was conspicuously silent. When this year's attack befell it, it was disarmed. The PTU leadership has naturally condemned the mass firing, but its collaboration with the PPSD on "reform" initiatives that attack teachers has meant it places the blame on the mayor, but won't criticize the superintendent.

EVEN MORE hollow was a press release from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the PTU's parent union:

The mayor and school superintendent owe it to the community and to the students and teachers in Providence to resolve whatever problem they're dealing with, not by fiat, but by working in a collaborative way. For the past two years, that's what they have been doing when it comes to work on improving low-performing schools, developing an innovative hiring process and revamping the teacher evaluation system.

In other words: We've helped you to make it easier to fire teachers already--why are you cutting us out of that process now?

Furthermore, the PTU's absence in previous struggles in the state likely means it has undercut its own position. While many teachers will still stand in solidarity, that solidarity would be even more automatic--and better organized from the top--had solidarity been maintained during last spring's battles.

The PTU will likely launch a lawsuit to challenge the legality of the mass firings. Even if it prevail in court, however, the PPSD could still use the precedent set by the East Providence case to unilaterally impose all sorts of cuts. And if the judge rules against the union's position in the currently pending lawsuit on the use of seniority in hiring, that will be yet another blow to teachers.

Unlike in Wisconsin, where the heads of the teachers union and other unions made calls to action--albeit cautiously and after the rank and file took the initiative--the PTU has done next to nothing to respond.

The union hasn't called any general membership meetings. Instead, PTU President Smith simply sent out an e-mail, stating: "We will be calling on you to write letters, make phone calls, attend rallies and possibly picket, at the very least at mayoral events."

This means it's now up to rank-and-file teachers to wage the fight--likely with much grassroots support, but without any real help from their leadership.

A rally in solidarity with Wisconsin workers in Providence on February 26 gave a sense of the situation. The rally, called by MoveOn.org with no local support, drew 200 people, including many teachers--but not the PTU leadership.

The mass firing was clearly on everyone's mind, but the question is how to fight back. The best indication was given by Kuperman, the teacher at Classical High School, who told local television news: "Get down to City Hall and tell Angel Taveras he has betrayed us...This is not just about a budget, but about trying to bust our union."

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