Judge grants TRO to prevent more school closings
Associate Justice Susan McGuirl of Kent County Superior Court ruled Monday in support of a temporary restraining order to prevent large numbers of teachers from calling out sick as a means to shut down school operations.
The parties will return to court on Friday, Oct. 27 to discuss the department’s request for “injunctive relief,” essentially a permanent restraining order against these types of school closures.
The ruling came as the result of Warwick Superintendent Philip Thornton filing an injunction against the Warwick Teachers’ Union last Thursday, following the closing of Pilgrim High School on Oct. 6 where 74 of 144 teachers called out sick and the closing of Veterans Junior High School on Oct. 11, where 59 of 91 teachers were reported out as sick.
On Monday three elementary schools – Robertson, Oakland Beach and Park – were closed due to insufficient staffing as well. More than half the total number of teachers reported sick from each school (21 of 35 at Robertson, 23 of 40 at Oakland Beach and 17 of 33 at Robertson). In total, five schools have been shut down in less than two weeks due to high levels of teacher absences.
The injunction alleges that such closings, which the administration refers to as “sick outs,” are “tantamount to an illegal strike” and “constitute an illegal work stoppage” which, “if not restrained,” will cause undue harm to the district’s students, create a financial burden on the school department and disrupt the schedules of those who have children in the affected schools.
Attorney Jeffrey Kasle, representing the Warwick Teachers’ Union, told McGuirl during the hearing that he objected to the use of the term “sick out,” as the union has to date taken no such vote to orchestrate any such activity that would constitute as a work stoppage, which would be illegal under Rhode Island law.
“I say that as far as I know, teachers are sick,” he said to reporters after the hearing. “I don’t know of teachers who are abusing the sick leave process. There may be some but I don’t know of any in that regard. I think it’s convenient for the school committee to indicate that, because a lot of teachers happen to be sick on a particular day, that it’s a sick out at this coincidental point in time.”
“A sick out, as that term is used in labor relations, anticipates or looks to concerted activity – that everybody got together, they talked about it and they decided they were going to do something,” he continued. “There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that, and in fact the union has done nothing to encourage that type of conduct in any manner, shape or form.”
Attorney Andrew Henneous, representing the school committee, presented numbers to the judge that the schools in question had only single digit numbers in terms of sick teachers before the massive increases on the days they had to be closed, and the numbers then went back into the single digits following the closure. Henneous said it “simply defies logic” that so many teachers could be legitimately sick on the same day, only to return to work again at the same time, at multiple schools across the district.
Kasle, however, said he didn’t find those numbers to be suspicious. “I think it’s coincidental. I don’t think it’s suspicious,” he said.
Thornton did not agree with this stance.
“I still don’t buy that. The facts are as they are,” he said. “As you heard in court, at Vets before the proceeding there were maybe four teachers out, then 59, and then maybe three the following day. To me, it is what it is. I would add, at Oakland Beach we had several teachers put sub plans in [last week] that say Monday on them. So clearly on Friday they knew they would be out today. It is what it is. It’s a sick out.”
McGuirl said in her ruling that she agreed with the school administration’s assertion that any continued closings due to mass absences would “constitute irreparable harm,” as was charged in the injunction, to the children of the Warwick public school district and that the children’s welfare should be the “main concern” moving forward.
The administration argued in their injunction that closing schools especially does harm to the approximately 1,531 students with special needs and the approximately 3,500 students who receive free or reduced lunches through the schools.
“The most important aspect of school is having the teacher in front of the students. The sick out in no way helps the educational process,” Thornton said. “It really hurts the kids every day that they’re out.”
When asked if teachers who were legitimately sick would be in risk of violating this order, Thornton said that the restraining order would only apply to events where enough staff call out to close the schools.
“They certainly do [have the right to call out if they’re legitimately sick]. I think today’s court decision helps us in terms of we won’t have mass numbers of people calling out sick,” he said. “Certainly people do get sick, however not in the numbers we’ve seen at the schools so far.”
The union and administration are still scheduled to meet on Wednesday evening at City Hall with Mayor Scott Avedisian and third party mediator Vincent Ragosta, and the results of interest arbitration could be released any day, although there is no definite date for that to happen.
Adding to the dialogue now are parents of students in Warwick schools, who have organized a protest outside City Hall and the Gorton Administration Building on that same Wednesday at 3 p.m.
Should teachers engage in another mass calling out of school, resulting in a school closure, those teachers would be in direct violation of the temporary restraining order and could be arrested for violating a court order. Despite the timing of the injunction, Thornton said that he was still hopeful for a positive result of Wednesday’s mediation session. Kasle agreed.
“The union is always hopeful to get an agreement,” Kasle said. “That’s been the goal for the last two years, to get an agreement with the school committee on terms that are fair to both parties, and they continue to work towards that.”
Union president Darlene Netcoh deferred to comments from Kasle for the purposes of this article, as the issue is an ongoing legal matter.