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R.I. city votes to fire all teachers

Providence uses strategy on deficit

By David Abel
Globe Staff / February 26, 2011

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School board officials in Providence, amid a growing national debate about the role of labor unions, voted this week to fire every teacher in the financially strapped city’s public schools.

The move, which has enraged the city’s nearly 2,000 teachers, came after officials advised the board that it would provide them more flexibility in coping with a yawning budget deficit. City officials said the decision was necessary because Rhode Island law requires schools to notify teachers by March 1 if they will not be rehired the following school year.

“Given where we are in the budget process, we needed to retain the maximum flexibility we could to manage what inevitably will be significant cuts to the school budget,’’ said Melissa Withers, a spokeswoman for Mayor Angel Taveras. ‘We could not afford any situation where we would have more teachers on the payroll than we could pay.’’

Teachers received letters from Superintendent Thomas Brady this week that described the “unprecedented action’’ he was advising the school board to take by issuing every teacher a termination letter. Brady noted in his letter that the city would have “the right to dismiss teachers as necessary, but not all teachers will actually be dismissed at the end of this school year.’’

Steve Smith, president of the Providence Teachers Union, said the school board’s 4-to-3 vote on Thursday to send the termination letters was equivalent to legislative efforts elsewhere in the country that would strip collective bargaining rights from public unions. He said the vote violates the union’s contract with the city and that the union was meeting with its lawyers to plan how to respond.

“The firing of every teacher has nothing to do with the budget or flexibility,’’ Smith said. “It has everything to do with disrespecting 1,926 professionals who show up to work every day and do an outstanding job. This is more about power and control. We feel very strongly that legally this can’t happen.’’

He and others said the city could have sent layoff notices as opposed to termination notices. Under the contract’s layoff provisions, teachers could be recalled based on seniority. They said there is no guarantee now that the city would use seniority to re scind the termination letters, and city officials were vague in responding to how they would choose which teachers would remain.

City officials said they are trying to determine the ultimate number of teachers that will be fired as a result of the school department’s $40 million budget deficit.

“Procedurally, a layoff comes with a set of provisions that could have a huge impact on the changes we need to make,’’ Withers said.

“When you terminate someone, your financial obligations to them end. With a layoff, depending on the kind of layoff, there are all kinds of provisions that you still may have financial obligations to that teacher.’’

The mass firings come little more than a year after officials in Central Falls, R.I., a small community just north of Providence, fired every teacher in the academically struggling high school. They were rehired after agreeing to work a longer school day and make other changes.

Teachers in Providence voiced anxiety about the city’s moves.

Debbie Pilkington, an eighth-grade teacher at Nathanael Greene Middle School, who has taught in the district for 17 years, said she fears she will not be rehired because she earns more than double the $36,000 entry-level salary teachers are paid.

“What they did is shocking,’’ she said. “I couldn’t believe it. What makes this worse is that if I have to apply for another job, I have to write down that I have been terminated, and it will make it so I can’t get a job anywhere else.’’

She and other teachers said their termination was not explained and they argued that they could only be laid off — rather than terminated — for financial reasons.

Debbie Zuckerman, who has taught learning-disabled students for 21 years at Central High School, saw the move as an effort to end seniority.

“I’m just very, very frustrated,’’ she said. “I know there’s a deficit and financial problems, but I don’t think they had to do this. They just want the ability to fire at will.’’

Marybeth Calabro, who also teaches at Nathanael Greene and has taught for 17 years in the district, said the union would have been willing to work with the district to make concessions.

“Initially, I thought this was a joke or that I misheard it,’’ she said. “I still can’t believe it.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.