Union: ‘Johnston teachers always put students first … do not deserve to be last’

Posted 5/24/24

The Johnston teacher’s union has a message for taxpayers.

They feel underappreciated, underpaid and low on the list of the town’s priorities.

A statement released by Kathleen …

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Union: ‘Johnston teachers always put students first … do not deserve to be last’


The Johnston teacher’s union has a message for taxpayers.

They feel underappreciated, underpaid and low on the list of the town’s priorities.

A statement released by Kathleen Kandzierski, president of the Johnston Federation of Teachers (JFOT), warns of negative changes in town.

“Educators have historically chosen Johnston right out of college and remain until they retire,” Kandzierski wrote. “This has changed as teachers in Johnston are not valued.”

Kandzierski begins the declaration by asking a series of questions: “What is the value of a teacher today and how is it measured? More so, what is the value of teachers who educate children in Johnston? What is their worth? They are putting our children first. Should we put teachers last?”

The Johnston School Committee and Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. have been locked in battle over school funding for the past year.

Polisena tried to spark a town takeover of school finances after the School Committee asked for a major increase in funding last year. The results of a secretive town audit of the school’s books have yet to be disclosed to the public, and the school essentially laid off 44 educators earlier this year (last week, the School Committee voted unanimously to recall 21 teachers).

“According to salary ranking statistics, Johnston teachers are the lowest paid teachers in the state of Rhode Island,” according to the JFOT. “Johnston has always been a community where people chose to raise families because of the access to a supportive, high-quality public school system. Residents know that their children are cared for by dedicated teachers who provide exceptional educational opportunities. Johnston teachers are consistently engaged in professional growth to meet the unique needs of each learner. The teachers have always devoted their time and are committed to students and families. Teachers spend countless hours attending extra-curricular events, always putting children first, even beyond the school day.”

The faculty’s dedication overmatches their paychecks, according to the union.

“When Johnston teachers are not valued for educating the town’s students and compensated accordingly, the Johnston School Department is not able to attract and retain highly qualified teachers,” Kandzierski wrote for the JFOT. “This directly impacts the education Johnston children receive. Experienced teachers are leaving the Johnston School District for other communities that pay their teachers $8,000-$12,000 more per year. Teacher positions remain vacant because Johnston is the lowest paying school district in the state.”

Outside auditors hired by Polisena’s administration to examine the school’s finances recommended the school district encourage older, more experienced teachers at the top step of the salary ladder to retire, and suggested replacing them with younger teachers fresh out of college.

“Johnston teachers always put students first,” Kandzierski wrote for her membership. “They do not deserve to be last!”

Johnston Public Schools Superintendent Bernard DiLullo Jr. praised his educators.

“Johnston teachers and support staff are dedicated to their profession and go above and beyond each and every day,” DiLullo wrote in response to the statement from the JFOT. “I have observed them teaching students with the skill one would expect in the classroom that must meet the needs of a diverse group of learners. In addition to the teachers we have a group of highly skilled administrators, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, teaching assistants and nurses who provide much needed emotional and physical support to our students which allows them to focus on their academics in the classroom. I know I speak for the Johnston School Committee when I say we value all our educators and strive to always treat them fairly.”

The statement from the teachers’ union was forwarded to Polisena, but he mayor had little to offer the teachers.

“The school department, not the town, negotiates contracts with the teachers union,” Polisena wrote.

Polisena was then asked to reconsider weighing in on the teachers’ union declaration.

He was asked if he had a any response to the JFOT statement. He was also asked if “someone (was) failing them, or are (the teachers’) complaints unfounded?”

Polisena replied with a more detailed statement, and requested it be run in its entirety.

“I would have to see their healthcare package, paid time off, and the percentage of teachers leaving for other districts compared to a general failure to fill vacancies from retirement,” Polisena wrote. “The town faced this issue with our DPW workforce. There is a general workforce shortage in government whether it be police, fire, public works or teaching. 20-40 years ago, workers wanted government jobs for stability, a pension and benefits. “

“Young people today entering in the workforce are focused on high salaries, transferable 401(k)s and they switch jobs more than previous generations did,” Polisena continued. “They’re also not as concerned with healthcare compared to other generations because many healthcare plans allow dependents to stay on until age 26, coupled with the fact that young people are generally healthy and don’t see specialists anywhere near as often as older people do.”

“What I did with the DPW workforce is, for new hires only, I rolled back healthcare and used those savings to cover salary increases,” Polisena explained. “In reality, it’s still not enough. Without using names, we lost a CDL driver to Coca-Cola for $6 more an hour and a mechanic to Inskip for $12 more an hour. If they’re seeking more money rather than security and benefits, you can’t really blame them for the switch. I, as well as other municipal and state leaders across the country, am constrained by the amount I can pay people compared to a private company because salaries here are funded by property tax dollars which are inelastic compared to the private sector, where salaries are funded by gross revenue of products and services, which typically are more elastic. Providing a defined benefit pension and healthcare benefits that generally surpass the private sector is supposed to be the selling point for government, but that’s difficult now with workforce priorities changing.”

“There are recent economic datapoints that the pendulum is swinging back to government growth,” according to Polisena. “However, it’s too early to tell if that’s out of fear of a recession or just a surge in federal spending.”


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