Whose schools? Our schools!

PRE-SCRIPT: While  Providence Schools have been in the national news for the firing of all teachers, local activists—including teachers—have been involved in a struggle to stop the closing of several Providence schools.  But don’t change the channel—the firings will be back after this current phase of the struggle…

Tonight’s Providence School Committee meeting was perhaps the most successful intervention from the grassroots in an official education forum in Rhode Island since last year’s RIDE forum at the Downtown Hilton.  On that occasion, RI Education Commissioner Gist posed the question of how to “improve” the state’s Race to the Top application; 300 angry teachers had other ideas, and imposed a new agenda on Commissioner Cruella.  Tonight’s meeting started with a rally of almost 100 people in front of the PCTA—I’d say about half students and organizers, but another half made up of teachers and parents, including the most important people to become activists in this current struggle.  We marched into the auditorium where the meeting was being held, and for a few moments it appeared that some of the more self-styled radical elements might try to shut the meeting down; that ended with the intervention of a popular city councilman, pleading for people to let the meeting happen.  And so it did.

In brief, the school department’s bureaucrat in charge of cutting the budget presented a plan to close four schools, saving the school department an estimated $8-12 million, give or take 30%, or maybe 60%, you know the data is in the packet that I left in the office…oh wait, no, maybe it’s up here…well, you all received it… etc.  The presentation was full of holes, and the school committee members raised a number of questions that the bureaucrat couldn’t answer.  This was followed by public comment—moved up on the agenda due to our presence—in which there was 100% solid rejection of the proposed school closings.  Come back on Thursday at 6:30 to find out if and how they will vote…

In the week or two before tonight, the developing conventional wisdom was that they’d vote to close one or two of the schools, but not all.  After tonight’s presentation, it seems to me that the whole plan is a package deal—that they couldn’t vote to close Flynn or Messer without converting Bridgham to an elementary, etc.  Perhaps I’m wrong about this.  In any case, it’s a relatively small amount of money they’d save, and a number of teachers I talked to were feeling cautiously optimistic that the school committee might actually vote no on the plan altogether.  The actual vote will take place on Thursday at 6:30 in the same place—the PCTA Auditorium on the corner of Fricker and Cranston Sts.

After April 28, the focus is certain to shift again, back to the firings and the teachers’ contract, which is up at the end of the school year.  In this context, I take quite seriously the concerns that some teachers raised about our action.  First of all, there was a sense that there should have been many more teachers out.  Despite the PTU actually calling for teachers to show up (!!!), the teacher activists talking to colleagues, the folks leafletting outside of schools as parents dropped off their kids, etc., the turn-out, particularly of teachers, was not what it could have been.  Most of the teachers have been involved in this year’s round of organizing already.  And what some expressed was a concern that too radical of an action—such as had been discussed in previous organizing meetings—might alienate teachers who have not yet joined the struggle.  Given the divide-and-conquer tactics against teachers and the need for patient building-up of organization from below among teachers, this is a well-founded concern.  And—it will be the teachers who are the key to the next phase of the struggle.

That will be the question of the firings, seniority, and the contract, all of which will be intertwined in the messiest of ways.  It seems that the strategy from the PTU leadership will be: accept economic concessions in return for keeping seniority.  I think this is likely to produce a situation in which the union gets its cake taken and can’t eat it, either.  The leadership is clearly feeling pressure from below—they called a rally in early March, and they’ve been curiously accommodating to our coalition organizing.  But there’s also set in, and not without some encouragement from the leadership, a certain (ill-considered) security among teachers not at the schools slated for closure, a sense that they’ll get their jobs back and it’s not their struggle, really.  I think they’re in for a rude awakening when the PPSD demands wage cuts, hikes in healthcare copays, cuts to degree stipends, the end of seniority, stripping of protections against bad evaluations, and likely even less control over academic freedom and working conditions.  And, I don’t think they’re going to win the seniority question in court, at least not so long as there’s no activism on the ground to pressure the PPSD—and Gist—to back off the attack on seniority.  This is likely the next phase, which will require greater mobilization from the teachers—and likely a level and type of mobilization that can only be accomplished by teachers organizing themselves.


About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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