Long before nearly 1,000 teachers and protesters packed City Hall on the night of Mayor Jorge Elorza’s State of the City address in February, the leadership of the Providence Teachers Union was sounding the alarm bell about the status of their contract.
Last June, union president Maribeth Calabro posted a tweet complaining that the Elorza administration had “no sense of urgency in negotiating” a new agreement, which expired two months later. She took a calmer approach when the school year began, suggesting she was optimistic a deal could be reached by the end of 2017.
But tension between the union and the mayor grew rapidly between September and December, in part because dozens of school employees found themselves being placed on administrative leave for allegedly abusing students. No one was ever charged or terminated. The city blamed a mandate from the R.I. Department of Children, Youth and Families requiring officials to report all abuse accusations, but teacher morale plummeted.
As the two sides worked toward a resolution on the DCYF issue, their contract negotiations stalled. Calabro claims they had come to terms on minor language changes to their last 73-page agreement and “we were closer than we had been in terms of raises,” but the mayor’s office yanked the offer and told her pay increases in the first two years of the deal were off the table.
That’s how Elorza ended up in a situation where he was forced to shout his way through his 35-minute State of the City speech as chants of “We deserve a contract” (think Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) rang out through the City Council chambers. The protesters were so disruptive that Elorza chose to deliver the same address from behind his desk a few days later and post it to YouTube.
So where do things go from here?
For all the armchair quarterbacking that has taken place about why Elorza and the teachers are at odds, the truth is pretty straightforward: the school department is facing a shortfall that is projected to grow from $3.7 million next year to $37 million by 2023, and that hole would only grow if teachers were guaranteed raises of any more than 1 percent each year.
On the policy front, Elorza says he is seeking a “transformational contract,” but he has provided few details about what that type of agreement might entail.
“The truth is that our schools, in so many ways, are low-performing,” Elorza told reporters in February. “And we can’t tolerate the status quo. We need to do something big, something with a vision.”
As Calabro sees it, Elorza shouldn’t brag about Providence running two straight years of budget surpluses if he isn’t willing to give pay increases to teachers. And without raises, it’s unlikely her members will support substantial changes to the contract.
Calabro also argues that the mayor is taking a hard-liner approach to teachers because he’s not concerned about them being a threat come election time. Only 22 percent of her members lived in Providence during the 2016-17 school year, a trend that is similar among all of the major public employee unions in the city.
“I think the mayor is extremely comfortable in his position as mayor,” Calabro says. “I think that he is very comfortable in the fact that he doesn’t believe he has a formidable opponent in this mayoral race. And I think he’s dismissive of Providence teachers because he doesn’t believe we have a voter base within the city.”
Still, where there is crisis, there is always opportunity. While neither Councilman Sam Zurier nor School Board President Nicholas Hemond have a direct role when it comes to contract negotiations, both say they’d like to provide a helping hand to Elorza and the union.
Zurier, a former school board member who now chairs the council’s new School Department Oversight Committee, says he wants to compare different parts of Providence’s expired contract with other teacher pacts around the state and region.
One of the benefits of negotiating a new contract, Zurier says, is the chance to review certain work rules that might not have a financial impact. During the Taveras administration, a similar analysis led to the city extending the school day by 15 minutes.
When it comes to money, Zurier says he would like to examine certain benefits provided in the agreement, like the amount of sick time teachers are allowed to cash out when they retire.
“I’d like to know: Is there a way to raise salaries while keeping costs the same?” he says.
Hemond, who has the trust of both Elorza and Calabro, says he’s willing to do whatever it takes to bring them together to reach a deal. He has warned that the district’s bleak financial picture may result in cuts that will affect students, but he also worries that the perception that teachers are treated poorly in Providence will scare future educators away from the city.
Hemond says he is optimistic Providence won’t face the same fate as Warwick, which saw teachers at several schools repeatedly call out sick last year during a heated contract debate. But he is also quick to say he’d rather be having serious discussions about moving the needle on student outcomes than the current argument.
“Adults fighting in education is never a good thing,” he says.