Teachers boycott professional development day
Underscores deeper divide between union and school admins
With summer nearly over and school scheduled to start on Tuesday, the current relationship between the Warwick Teachers Union and the school administration is anything but sunny.
On Wednesday, teachers staged “informational pickets” in front of three locations where administrators were holding professional development day activities for teaching staff.
About 30 sign-wielding teachers could be seen at the Centreville Road and Toll Gate Road entrances to the Toll Gate complex at 7:30 a.m., and similar pickets were occurring in front of the Gorton Administration Building and the West Bay Collaborative offices on Bignall Street.
The demonstrations were organized by the Warwick Teachers Union to protest the ongoing contract dispute that has now been smoldering for more than two years.
“It is not business as usual here in Warwick and the superintendent shouldn't think so,” said union president Darlene Netcoh in an interview on Tuesday. “The superintendent and school committee should know that teachers are not going to put up with a third year without a successor agreement.”
Teachers were instructed in a memo, obtained by the Beacon, that the professional development day was a mandatory attendance event and was scheduled for the betterment of both teachers and students at Warwick schools. The memo was signed by Superintendent Philip Thornton, Director of Human Resources Katherine Duncanson and Chief Academic Officer Sheryl Rabbitt.
The memo reads that, although the aforementioned three administrators have only been in Warwick between one and two years, “one of the most common complaints that we have heard in both public meeting comments and in our ongoing discussions with teaching professionals is the lack of training offered to teachers in the district. We agree. This is a shortcoming of this district. We, as well as the other members of the Administration Team, want to improve this in Warwick and make it a priority.”
The memo continues, saying that skipping the development day would not reap any benefits, and would only be detrimental to the advancement of students and teachers alike.
“Choosing not to attend does not hurt administration, nor does it impact contract negotiations. Both sides want a contract and we will continue to work towards that goal. Choosing not to attend, in short, hurts you – your own professional growth and learning – and it ultimately does hurt your students.”
Netcoh referred to the administration’s statements as “lip service,” and that the union is standing firm on its rejection of any offered contract that does not specifically protect two areas of contractual language – protections regarding class sizes, and language regarding how special education teachers are assigned to classrooms to assist students with IEPs.
“If the superintendent is concerned about ‘teaching and learning,’ then he and the school committee will return to mediation and agree to contractual language that will ensure that class sizes are conducive to learning and that special education teachers are appropriately assigned to classrooms so that all students receive the support that they require to learn,” Netcoh said in a statement.
Thornton disputed contractual language as being the reason for the inability to sign a new deal, saying that, “In our meetings we have received proposals for salary increases. We have not received proposals for language changes.”
Netcoh rebutted that comment, saying that the union has been continually working on rewriting the contract language to include better provisions for class sizes and special education assignments. She said that, “we’ve gotten very close [to agreeing on language] but it’s still a little off.”
Although many teachers partook in the protest, a small number of educators did choose to cross the picket line peacefully to join the professional development day activities, which included training for the recently purchased Promethean Boards, Chromebook management and training on various Google classroom tools.
Contract dispute gets messier
The boycotts occurred in the wake of a second mediated contract offer that was ultimately rejected last Wednesday by the union. The union, however, claims the administration was also to blame because they refused to negotiate with their counter offer, and that the administration had a “take it or leave it” attitude walking into the meeting.
The administration asserts that they offered a “fair and generous” contract, which they arrived at through the non-binding leanings of a neutral arbitrator and included 11.5 percent in salary increases over the course of a new contract, in addition to a 2 percent retro-pay raise for the 2016/17 school year (beginning in March 1, 2017).
The contract would have made 10th-step Warwick teachers the fourth-highest paid in the state, behind only Barrington, Westerly and Exeter/West Greenwich, at a salary of $86,386 in FY20.
Superintendent Thornton said, during an impromptu meeting at the Beacon office on Wednesday, that the union rejected this offer and refused to budge on their counter offer, which included 3 percent raises for both years without a contract and the three subsequent years of the contract, which would amount to a 15.9 percent total salary increase after compounded interest.
Netcoh disputed the honesty of the administration’s numbers once again on Wednesday, saying that the school’s offer did not add up to an 11.5 percent increase because the retro-pay raise for 2016/17 would not kick in until March 1, 2017, meaning it is truly only a 1.5 percent raise for one year of retro-pay.
The union had said previously that the administration was “lying” about offering any retroactive pay raises, and that the union’s counter offer was not so high, although Netcoh would not specify the precise details of that counter offer.
To address this assertion, Thornton unconventionally presented documents showing the offers extended by both sides at the Aug. 23 mediation meeting, which showed that the union had indeed asked for 3 percent raises for both the years without a contract and the subsequent three years of the new contract (although the 2015/16 raise would only kick in at the 90th school day).
Netcoh expressed disappointment that Thornton revealed the information from the meetings, as that has traditionally remained confidential between the two negotiating sides. She had already been upset because the union’s intentions to boycott yesterday were also released to the press.
“I’m disappointed by the leak to the press,” Netcoh said on Wednesday morning. “We never get anywhere negotiating in the press.”
Following the inability to reach an agreement, the administration released a statement saying that that, “the mediation process has run its course and we look forward to the receipt of the interest arbitration ruling due out in the very near future.”
Although an interest arbitration decision is looming sometime in September, which will include the finalized contractual language and financial recommendations of an impartial arbitrator, this does not necessarily mean it will be the final say for a new contract. This is because arbitration of financial maters is nonbinding in Rhode Island for teachers, although the contractual language will be binding.
Important rulings to come in September
Rhode Island Superior Court justice Jeffrey Lanphear was due to make a ruling Tuesday on more than 20 grievances filed by the union on the basis that the administration had violated the terms of their previous contract. However, a “scheduling issue” with one of the attorneys has delayed this decision, and it has not yet been rescheduled.
Lanphear will have to take into consideration the upholding of a ruling by the Rhode Island Supreme Court Justice Bennett Gallo in February that concluded the previous terms of a contract would not carry over in perpetuity until a new contract was agreed upon.
Speaking in regards to that decision, and its ruling being subsequently upheld – which overturned a 25-year-old state Labor Relations Board decision that ruled the previous contract language would continue to apply between negotiated contracts – Netcoh said that, “Gallo misbehaved and Silverstein [Justice Michael Silverstein] misbehaved in East Providence.”
Netcoh also brought up the possibility of the Rhode Island General Assembly possibly overriding Governor Gina Raimondo’s veto of the so-called “Evergreen Contract” bill, which would seek to reinstate the former language that would enforce the prior terms of a contract until a new one is agreed upon, when they come back into session for one day on Tuesday, Sept. 19.
“It’s not going to bankrupt cities and towns,” she said, criticizing the argument made by many Rhode Island mayors and town administrators who opposed the bill and lobbied for its vetoing.
The case could be argued that the union would benefit from waiting out the contract dispute another few weeks to see the results in Superior Court and get the arbitrator’s decision on contract language.
Netcoh, who is celebrating her 30th year in teaching this year, maintained that the contract dispute, at this point, is not about money, but rather about the contractual language and ensuring a brighter educational future for Warwick students.
“If it was only about dollars we would have taken the deal two years ago,” Netcoh said on Wednesday while picketing outside of Toll Gate. “It's all about the kids.”
The Beacon will update this story as it continues to progress. John Howell contributed to this report.