Teacher seniority meets law, say schools, union


Warwick schools human resources director and legal counsel Rosemary Healey believes the district is in compliance with state basic education program regulations even though its contract with the teachers’ union references seniority when it comes to teacher placements.

Healey’s comments come in response to a Jan. 31 letter from Deborah A. Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education on the retention, hiring and placement of teachers. Gist says that job fairs that base teacher assignments solely on seniority and that “bumping” less senior teachers as a result of layoffs will be considered “categorical violations” of the basic education program and unless adjusted, districts would be considered “purposeful and willful violations of the state law.”

James Ginolfi, president of the Warwick Teachers Union, believes teacher contract and practices of the Warwick system are compliant.

In cases where teachers are laid off, those with seniority are last to go.

“We are very aware of all the regs and statutes, and I have every confidence that it [the contract] meets all the regulations,” Ginolfi said yesterday.

If the practice of using seniority is not corrected, Gist said the district “shall be subject to administrative orders enforceable in Superior Court and the potential loss or diversion of state aid.” She also said sanctions could include loss of certification.

Healey says she will respond to Gist, but she believes the city has a contract that meets regulations, although it provides for a jobs fair. According to the contract, she said, teachers who have failed to demonstrate requisite skills on two occasions are prohibited from participating in the fair. Those unqualified teachers are to stay in their positions and to follow a “remedial plan.”

Teacher evaluations are a critical component of Gist’s plan to improve Rhode Island schools as set forth in the state’s bid for federal Race to the Top funding. The state won a $75 million Race to the Top grant two years ago and the work done so far won acclaim from Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a report released last Friday.

“Rhode Island has set a clear path forward on comprehensive education reform that will better support teachers and principals and enable student growth for years to come. They have overcome challenges and proved what’s possible when everyone works together,” Duncan writes.

But while the big picture may appear bright, local districts and unions have issues with the plan.

Warwick was one of two districts – Jamestown was the other – to fully implement the teacher evaluation component of the plan on a test basis. Ginolfi, who was represented on the panel overseeing implementation of evaluations, was highly critical of the system, saying that its multi layers of review and documentation cut seriously into teaching time and was a misuse of administrators’ time.

On Tuesday, Healey was cautious in choosing her words to describe the system. She feels a modified system of evaluation is desirable, “however, we have found the requirements of the current model to be onerous to work with.”

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, however, doesn’t mince words when it comes to Gist’s ruling on seniority and bumping. In a release, the union says it is “outraged” and that Gist’s letter, “contains her erroneous, misguided interpretation of the Rhode Island Basic Education Plan.”

Federation president Frank Flynn says Gist has exceeded her authority and that she “seeks to bully, intimidate and harass school committees and administrators by threatening to revoke certifications and withhold state education funds unless they void the collective bargaining agreements that they reached in good faith.”

In his release, Flynn further says, “The Commissioner’s letter clearly devalues qualifications and certifications recognized and awarded by the Rhode Island Department of Education and shows a lack of respect for the role which experience plays in teaching. Any actions taken as a result of this flawed interpretation would relegate teachers to the status of indentured servants instead of valued professionals.”

In her letter to school districts, Gist writes “there exists no rational link between seniority per se and educational achievement.”

She says staffing decisions based merely on the length of time that a teacher has been in a system “may, in fact contribute to an arbitrary process resulting in forced or inappropriate placement.”

Duncan’s report was cause for state officials to celebrate.

In a statement Gov. Lincoln Chafee said the state has been recognized for putting its plan into action that “will benefit our students today and will ensure our economic prosperity as we move forward.”

Gist said in a statement, “At the midpoint in this four-year grant, I am especially proud that Rhode Island educators are working together to transform education in our state.”

The Department praised Rhode Island educators for effective management of the grant, which Rhode Island received in 2010, and for success in implementing a number of initiatives that the grant funds, including, among other initiatives:

l training 5,800 Rhode Island educators in implementation of the Common Core State Standards, which will go into effect in the next school year;

l creating assessments aligned with the Common Core that will measure students’ learning throughout the school year;

l implementing educator evaluations across the state;

l providing additional support to 262 first-year teachers;

l establishing an Academy for Transformative Leadership to support school leaders in low-achieving schools; and

l developing improved data systems for instructional management, for educator support, for educator certification, and for early warning to identify students at risk of failure.

To date, Rhode Island has spent $21.3 million in Race to the Top funds, including $4.1 million to implement educator evaluations, $2.1 million for transition to the Common Core State Standards and for curriculum development, and $1.25 million to develop data systems to improve instruction. Rhode Island is on course toward spending the full $75 million of the award by the end of next year (year 4 of the grant).


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