By this morning more than two years of discord could be in the rear view mirror, and the School Committee and the Warwick Teachers Union could be talking about improving education in Warwick classrooms instead of boycotts, pickets, sickouts and court action.
That certainly was the hope of Mayor Scott Avedisian yesterday morning in preparation for the resumption of mediation between the parties. Avedisian, who has been welcomed to help facilitate the negotiations by mediator Vincent Ragosta, hosted the session, which was expected to start yesterday evening at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
“I’m very optimistic,” the mayor said.
But if last night’s mediation doesn’t go as hoped for (the newspaper’s deadline was prior to the talks), the School Committee is expected to hold a meeting set for 7:30 this morning on how to implement a temporary restraining order granted Monday by Superior Court Associate Justice Susan McGuirl.
Questions revolve around who the committee needs to notify of the order, with the assumption being more than 900 teachers would need to be individually served, and what actions would be taken if they call out sick, yet are found to not be sick. Presumably, with the restraining order in effect until a subsequent hearing on Oct. 27, such an action would be in contempt of court.
Avedisian said on Wednesday he has advised Col. Stephen McCartney that the restraining order is a “civil not a criminal” action and that he would expect court constables or their designees to deliver orders to the teachers.
“It’s a civil action now, it’s not something that involves the police department. It doesn’t involve police action at this time,” said City Solicitor Peter Ruggiero.
And should it come to the court finding teachers have violated the restraining order, Avedisian would ask the judge not to impose fines or send them to jail.
“That is not helpful,” he said.
Meanwhile, rather than abiding by the mayor’s call for cooler heads last week, the situation escalated with Oakland Beach, Robertson and Park elementary schools closing Monday because of the number of teachers who called in sick.
That morning the School Committee was in court and Kent County Superior Court Associate Justice Susan McGuirl issued the restraining order, although Jeffery Kasle, attorney for the union, said he had no reason to dispute teacher claims of being sick and reiterated that union members had not once taken a vote on whether or not to engage in a sickout.
But the discord didn’t stop there.
Tuesday night a busload of adults, believed to be teachers as reported by Superintendent Philip Thornton, showed up in front of his home in Cranston to picket. He called McCartney to inform him of the situation and, in turn, the chief called Cranston Police. Reportedly the picketers left by the time Cranston Police arrived.
Picketing parents turned out yesterday at City Hall and the Gorton school administration building in support of teachers.
"We parents are tired of our teachers being vilified on social media and misrepresented in the press,” said parent organizer Kelly Smith in a release on Monday. “We know this is not about money. We know these teachers are fighting for our children. My profoundly disabled daughter is home from school today due to these sick-outs, and though it's inconvenient, I support it. I support the Warwick Teachers’ Union 100 percent.”
Asked yesterday as about 200 parents and teachers, along with students, picketed City Hall how the action might help mediation that night, Smith said, “It’s escalating and hopefully it’s getting to the point where both sides feel they can reach a fair agreement.”
Smith said the picket, which was billed as an action on behalf of parents supporting teachers, had been in the planning stages for some time. She said the closure of the three elementary schools on Monday prompted them to pick Wednesday for the demonstration.
The perception of teachers being unfairly represented by the press led one Warwick teacher, 20-year teaching veteran at Pilgrim High School Peter SanGiovanni, to start an online petition calling for people to boycott this publication, for perceived bias against the teachers and in support of the school administration.
“The Warwick Beacon has recently taken an ever more one-sided journey in its reporting,” the petition reads. “Instead of balanced news with verified sources the Warwick Beacon has now resorted to anti-teacher editorials and unverified sources, all while reporting on anything the school department PR firm sends to them.”
In an interview on Wednesday, SanGiovanni said that it was two recent editorials, one of which criticized the teachers’ 90 sick days policy, that were the major impetus for him to start the petition, which had 445 signatures of a 500 signature goal as of press time.
He also said that some stories, including a piece over the summer featuring the new Gorton Administration Building, drew his ire because of how it portrayed the school administration in an overly-positive light without seeking to explore the grievances of teachers dealing with cramped classroom conditions.
“We want to see things get better just like everybody else, but having a PR firm pumping out disinformation and having the local paper run with it is not helping us,” SanGiovanni said.
The Beacon published a piece on Tuesday exploring the sick day policy with the goal of expanding beyond the surface and trying to clear up misconceptions about it.
Beacon publisher John Howell responded to the petition in a statement: “I believe that our coverage has been fair to both sides. We've reached out to both sides for each story regarding the contract dispute and have run pieces that have reflected negatively on both the school administration and the Warwick Teachers' Union. Editorials are written from a purely opinionated stance and are never presented as anything but. We have never turned down or refused to run information from either side, and we continue to welcome any additional information either side is willing to provide.”
Warwick Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh declined to comment on either the petition to boycott the Beacon and on the issue pertaining to the alleged picket of Thornton’s home.
(With reports by John Howell)