Questions about the PTU’s Tentative Agreement

The following is the extended text of a leaflet I wrote for the CDPE, though I’m not certain that everyone in the CDPE would agree with the approach.  I know that a number of people want to take a more definite stand for a “no” vote, which I’m sympathetic to–I think the contract includes fatal flaws, and were it my contract, I’d vote no.  But there are also people in the coalition voting “yes”, who cannot be faulted for their reasons.  So, in the spirit of building solidarity and for the long-term struggle, here it is:

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QUESTIONS ABOUT THE TENTATIVE AGREEMENT

The tentative agreement reached between the Providence Teachers’ Union and the Providence Public School District (presumably represented by Mayor Taveras and Angela Romans) will, according to the Mayor’s Office, “settle outstanding contract and legal disputes between the City and the PTU”.  This may sound like welcome news—after all that Providence teachers have endured over the past six months, who wouldn’t want an end to a tumultuous period?  Furthermore, the “no lay-offs or terminations” clause appears to be a big victory.  However, while we understand why PTU members might be eager to approve this agreement and move on, there are some problems with the agreement as it stands.  While there are some good aspects for PTU members, there are also some serious concessions to the Mayor which should raise real questions.

IS SENIORITY TRADED FOR JOBS?

One of the most compelling selling points of this agreement is the clause that “Teachers terminated without good and just cause are all reinstated.” (Article 21)  Without doubt, the most gut-wrenching part of the last six months is the fear and anxiety, the humiliation, the bureaucratic gauntlet—in a word, the oppression—of the teachers whose firings were not rescinded back in May.  Those teachers whose schools were unjustly closed, or whose schools are being “restructured”, had to endure a ridiculous, confusing, and unjust process to get a job—and at the end of the day, 125 teachers were still illegally fired.  Obviously, their firing should never have happened, and should now be rescinded—and this deal appears to do just that.

However, the rescission of firing should be weighed against the PTU’s acceptance of Criterion-Based Hiring, with elements of this in articles 8-6, 11 and 12.  By accepting CBH, the PTU effectively gives up seniority.  It may be included as “one factor” in a CBH appointment, but that one factor can be easily ignored under the new system.  In reality, however, the illegally fired teachers were put in such a bad situation precisely because the PPSD refused to honor seniority.  If the PTU were instead to pursue its lawsuit against the district on the question of seniority, the district might potentially be forced to reinstate all the fired teachers to their rightful positions.  This would likely also require the practice of bumping of junior teachers, which was given up some years ago.  Instead, the agreement drops the lawsuit, and the fight for seniority is ended.

It’s also clear that the fired teachers will be rehired, but to entirely contingent positions.  Most of the illegally fired teachers will be assigned to positions similar to their certifications, but with emergency certificates until a full, appropriate position opens up.  But what if this doesn’t happen in the three years of the contract?  The Mayor’s statement says, “Teachers who have their terminations rescinded will be placed into open positions based on student need within the district by the school department and there will be no ‘bumping’ of junior teachers for all three years of the contract.”  The Providence Journal notes that of the 125 teachers who did not have a job after the match event in June, “There are currently about 40 teachers who have not been rehired. Those teachers will be assigned to the School Department’s central office, where they will be assigned to work every day.  Will these teachers once again become “Regulars in Pool”?

Furthermore, according to the Mayor, “Terminations will be rescinded for teachers who lost positions because of fiscal crisis.  Terminations issued for other causes will not be rescinded.”  This is relatively clear in the case of teachers at the closed schools, on one hand, and in the case of bad evaluations, just cause firings, etc., on the other.  But what about teachers at the “restructured” schools?  Will they also have rights within the system, or is their mass firing considered “with just cause”?  For now, the answer seems to be that these schools and the fired teachers there fall under the rubric of “fiscal crisis”.  But what about the schools that are slated for restructuring next year or the year after?  Will the same terms still apply?  They clearly didn’t apply in Central Falls last year.  And what is the impact of this contract on the closing of schools, as happened to Flynn, Windmill, Bridgham, etc.?

One last note on this aspect.  A New York City teacher in the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) who saw the Providence Journal coverage of the tentative agreement wrote to us the following:

The abandonment of seniority in hiring was one of the crucial concessions that the UFT made in 2005 that allowed the district to manufacture a crisis in New York around those teachers who were not hired because they were more senior (and therefore more expensive and union conscious).  There are over 1000 of those teachers (called ATRs) across the city, now working as itinerant subs in a different school every week. They serve as a constant leverage for the mayor in negotiations, who constantly howls for their layoff.  No doubt the Providence district would like to do the same, by building up a big pool and then laying them off three years from now (or do a legislative end run around the contract to fire them directly, which given its previous actions seems perfectly likely).  The ATR debacle in New York should be a warning against accepting this to every RI teacher.

In the end, the illegally fired teachers will have jobs, but at what cost to their—and really everyone’s—rights?

ARE THE ECONOMIC CONCESSIONS NECESSARY?

This contract gives concessions on many of the economic questions, albeit in nickel-and-dime form.  The problem here is that these concessions are completely unnecessary.  Based on figures released by the Providence Journal in May, the value of the concessions—$53 million, according to the mayor—could be recouped, simply by forcing Brown University and the Providence Place Mall (that’s right, the Mall pays nothing in property taxes) to pay taxes on the property they own within the city at the same rate as any homeowner.  Brown would pay $33 million and the Mall $17 million annually—and those are only two of the many “non-profit” entities that use their tax status to starve the city of funds.  In short: Providence’s economic crisis was a manufactured crisis all along, and there’s absolutely no necessity in making any economic concessions whatsoever.

It’s unclear exactly what the dollars and cents add up to, in part because of the numerous different healthcare plans that different members subscribe to, and we encourage all members to run the numbers for yourselves.  There are a few salient points:

  • The increase in the length of the school day means a 4% increase in your time at school, without a corresponding increase in pay.
  • The first two years of no raise—and the deferred longevity bonus—are completely unnecessary, and at a time of rising inflation, mean a cut in your actual purchasing power.
  • The raises in the third year really mean a 3% raise; the extra 3% at the end of school actually means a raise for the year after the expiration of this contract.  The placement of that raise allows the Mayor not to count it as part of the costs of this contract—a handy trick for a politician.  It also certainly means no raise for the first year of the next contract—if indeed it’s not rescinded by that contract.

CAN WE TRUST THE MAYOR?

The short answer: No.  Remember: HE ILLEGALLY FIRED US AND GOT AWAY WITH IT.  Now anyone who’s been to a School Committee meeting—or who’s seen Kathy Crain’s comments on the contract in Golocalprov.com—will know that they’re not exactly the best allies of teachers.  But we should be clear what the Mayor’s power grab over the last six months means for teachers—why we need an elected school committee in Providence, and what the dangers are in trusting a Mayor whose illegal actions will be essentially ratified and accepted if this agreement is approved.  This is the most troubling aspect of the contract, as it represents a major concession that could well come back to haunt PTU members in future contracts, if not before.  Even if the Mayor honors the no lay-offs clause, there is nothing stopping him or future mayors from carrying out another mass firing after the term of the contract.

Let’s review the history: in February, the Mayor announced the mass firing of all Providence teachers.  While the PTU leadership launched a lawsuit against the firings, Taveras countered with his own lawsuit against basically everyone else, asking the court in essence to legitimize his action.  Nothing excuses breaking the law like getting permission to break it retroactively.  This was also probably a maneuver to tie up the PTU lawsuit and to buy time for the Mayor so that he could get language in the contract dropping the PTU’s lawsuit and letting him get off scot-free.

Within a month of the firing, he had announced the plan to close four elementary schools and a middle school, and pushed through this plan with record speed.  One of the likely reasons for Tom Brady’s resignation is that even by Brady’s corporate-driven, Broad Foundation standards, the school closings happened far too fast.  Additionally, it was clear to anyone who went through the process that the hearings were a charade, a superficial legal obligation to “hear the public” without listening to us at all.  The Mayor himself did not attend most of the hearings, instead sending his advisors to oversee the process and snicker at the hundreds of teachers, parents and students who packed those hearing to oppose the closing of their schools.  It was the School Committee that approved the closings, but they clearly did so on orders from the Mayor.

The School Committee was obviously not pliant enough, because then, in a last-minute maneuver, Taveras worked with state senator Paul Jabour to get a bill through the General Assembly, placing all power to negotiate contracts in the hands of the Mayor.  The appointed School Committee was already a rubber stamp, but this move tore the veil off the Mayor’s megalomania.  This power grab will now be ratified by article 16-2 of the contract.

After all of this, the Mayor now presents the teachers with a contract offer that includes a clause barring lay-offs or terminations for fiscal reasons.  Yet this man has already pulled numerous tricks to get around and ignore the last contract, when it suited his needs.  What makes us think he’ll actually honor the provisions of this contract?

WHAT WOULD A “NO” VOTE MEAN?

We fully expect the majority of PTU members to vote to ratify this agreement, and we are in full sympathy and solidarity with those who do so because it rescinds their unjust and illegal firing.  However, we also know many who are unhappy with the terms of the contract and are voting no.  The Coalition to Defend Public Education includes teachers and parents from Providence as well as other districts, so while we do not take an official position on the contract, many of our PTU members are voting no on the basis of various of the questions elaborated above.

First of all, a “no” vote is a vote of no confidence in Mayor Taveras.  Secondly, a “no” vote expresses dissatisfaction with a negotiation process that has been held in secret, that has given major ground to the Mayor, that contains unnecessary concessions, and that has been conducted from a position of weakness with no real attempt to mobilize the collective power of the membership.

Thirdly, a “no” vote by a majority of PTU members would simply mean that the leadership is directed to go back and take a tougher stand against the Mayor—and there is nothing inevitable about the results of that.  A re-negotiation of this deal would not necessarily mean giving up rescission of the firings—but it could mean a chance to bring seniority back.  And, a re-negotiation of the contract could be an opportunity for the PTU to flex its actual muscle by taking job actions to strengthen the union’s position at the negotiating table.  For these reasons, we believe that a “no” vote has just as much legitimacy as a “yes” vote.

Finally, whatever the outcome of this agreement, this contract does not stop the broad, national and state-wide assault on public education.  From the imposition of charter schools to the need for an elected school committee, the need for solidarity with teachers and parents in other districts, and the certainty of fighting budget cuts next year, we are in the fight to defend public education for the long term.  However you vote on this agreement, we encourage you to join our coalition and get involved in the grassroots struggle to save our schools!

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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2 Responses to Questions about the PTU’s Tentative Agreement

  1. Tom Hoffman says:

    In practice, a “no” vote is a vote to roll the dice on the big pile of lawsuits pending and hatching a few more when the city started unilaterally imposing conditions when the old contract ran out (according to the East Providence precedent).

    That and I’d wager the administration would NEVER accede to a return to the status quo ante on seniority. The East Siders in particular are just obsessed with it.

  2. David Haller says:

    At this point it may make the most sense to accept this contract and then work vigorously to build some real solidarity within PTU and spend the next three years building public support for public schools and public school teachers. Turn the tide so that we the public refuse to mistreat our public school teachers, this won’t happen without changing the public perception of school teachers. It is a very bitter pill to swallow that the mayor gets to act illegally without facing any consequences. We need to educate the public about the absurdity, ugliness and unfairness of the mayor’s actions; so he doesn’t get to do it again. And this is not just about teachers; public education as a civil right is under attack and we need to develop winning strategies to build broad-based public support for public education. Quality public education cannot exist without teacher contracts that honor, respect and elevate the status of teachers.

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