PROVIDENCE, R.I. - "Shocking." That was the response of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to the mass firing of every one of this city's 1,926 public school teachers. The school board voted 4 to 3 Thursday night to approve the firings, despite an outpouring of 700 teachers who packed the school gymnasium where the board was meeting, to testify against the draconian action.
"I'm feeling disrespected, devalued and marginalized," teacher Ed Gorden told school board members before they voted, as reported in the Providence Journal. "Termination is a career-ender. You are putting a scarlet letter on every one of us."
Mayor Angel Taveras, a newly elected liberal Democrat, had announced the planned move last week, saying the terminations were necessary to give the city more "flexibility" in dealing with a $40 million school budget deficit. He says some schools will have to be closed next fall. He and school officials said they were driven by a March 1 deadline, set by state law, requiring school districts to notify teachers by that date if their jobs are in jeopardy for the next school year.
Addressing the board members, teachers begged them to issue layoff notices instead of firing them, because under the union contract, teachers are recalled from layoff based on seniority. With terminations, there is no guarantee that seniority would be followed in rehiring teachers.
"This is a quasi-legal power grab," said Richard Larkin, a teacher at Classical High School who was quoted in the Journal. "You want to pick and choose teachers. Well, we will not be bullied."
As the Journal described it, "Speaker after speaker demanded to know why they were being fired. Didn't the teachers union sign on to the federal Race to the Top initiative? Hasn't the union collaborated with Supt. Tom Brady on new curricula? Isn't the union working with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers on a new teacher evaluation?"
Weingarten noted, in a statement issued Wednesday, that, "the district and the Providence Teachers Union have been working collaboratively on a groundbreaking, nationally recognized school transformation model."
A local activist says the Providence Teachers Union "has been at the forefront of labor-management cooperation as far as school reform." She adds, "These aren't a few hundred ‘layoff' notices that traditionally happen each year before the March 1 deadline. These are termination notices - which I believe means the city can then pick and choose who it wants to bring back. There's no guarantee that this selection will happen based on any objective criteria (whether it is a mutually-agreed upon teacher evaluation, or something more traditional like seniority)."
PTU President Steve Smith called the terminations "an attack on labor and an attack on collective bargaining."
"This is a back-door Wisconsin," Smith said, referring to the massive protests spurred by Republican Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to break Wisconsin's public worker unions.
Mass teacher terminations, whether in one school or an entire district, are "not fiscally or educationally sound," Weingarten said.
"A mass firing, announced in the middle of a school year, does not help solve a budget problem - the purported reason - but, rather, disrupts the education of all students and the entire community," she said.
"The mayor claims he needs flexibility. We looked up ‘flexibility' in the dictionary, and it does not mean destabilizing education for all students in Providence or taking away workers' voice or rights."
Taveras, the city's first Latino mayor, was elected last fall with strong labor and progressive backing and has had good relations with unions since taking office. But city administrators' argument about needing "maximum flexibility" rings hollow for union members, the community activist here said. "It sounds like code for making an end-run around the union contract."
"No one likes having something forced down their throat," the activist said. Instead, she suggested, the city should work with the union, with the message: "We are facing a $40 million deficit, we're going to have to close some schools or consolidate, let's come to the table and figure out if we can come up with something together."
For the past two years, Weingarten said, Providence teachers have been working together with school officials on improving low-performing schools, developing an innovative hiring process and revamping the teacher evaluation system.
"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," she said.