Contract length, politics, key issues in Gist renewal

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Gov. Lincoln Chafee on Wednesday reaffirmed his support for Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, but stopped short of fully endorsing the school chief’s request for a three-year extension when her contract ends next month.

“I do like continuity,” Chafee told WPRI.com. “We’re working with the [Board of Education] and they have to be involved on this. I’m sure we’ll come to an agreement.”

Chafee’s comments came on the heels of a Monday rally that saw hundreds of teachers from across the state speak out against Gist, who has been criticized for implementing a controversial teacher evaluation system and supporting a high school graduation mandate that requires students to show “partial proficiency” on the math and English portions of the New England Common Assessment Program test.

The 11-member Board of Education – whose members were all appointed by Chafee after the new board’s creation last year – is set to discuss Gist’s contract at a meeting Thursday, but will not hold a vote, according to board spokesman Michael Trainor.

Gist has already appeared in front of the board’s personnel committee to make the case for an extension. A spokesman for the commissioner confirmed she is seeking a three-year contract renewal. She earned $203,000 in 2012, according to state payroll records.

Chafee acknowledged there may be “room for improvement” regarding how Rhode Island moves forward with its evaluation system and graduation requirements, but said he has a track record for going to bat for Gist even when it has garnered criticism from the state’s teachers’ unions.

“She respects that I have walked across hot coals to give her the money in accelerating the school funding formula and all the abuse I’ve taken,” Chafee said.

Gist was hailed as a “change agent” who could help reform the state’s struggling schools when she was recruited to Rhode Island in 2009 under former Gov. Don Carcieri after serving as the state superintendent of education in Washington, D.C.

Within a year of coming to the state, Gist was recognized by Time magazine as one of the “100 most influential people in the world” for her work to overhaul the teacher evaluation system. She earned praise from education reformers for lobbying the General Assembly to lift the state cap on charter schools and helping Rhode Island become one of the final states in the country to implement a school funding formula.

But Gist has long clashed with teachers who claim her reform efforts have rarely taken their feedback into account and, more recently, students who say they shouldn’t be subject to a graduation requirement they weren’t properly prepared for. All told, 40% of Rhode Island 11th graders will need to improve their NECAP score in order to receive a diploma next year.

“The NECAP is not designed for what it’s being used for and the evaluation system is being done by people who have not been fully trained in a system that is untried and untested,” Jerry Suggs, a teacher at William M. Davies, Jr. Career and Technical High School, told WPRI.com. “I just think that’s a crazy way to run a ship.”

Other teachers say their feedback has fallen on deaf ears. Last month, the National Education Association Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals – the state teachers’ unions – commissioned a poll that showed 73% of teachers found Gist to be “somewhat ineffective” or “ineffective” and another 82% felt less respected than they did when Gist was hired in 2009.

“I commend her effort, but I don’t think she listens well,” Bill Foley, another teacher, told WPRI.com. “She hears what she wants to hear.”

In all, 85% of teachers said they did not believe Gist’s contract should be renewed, a startling figure that may become a central focus in next year’s race for governor.

Chafee, an independent who was elected with crucial support from the teachers’ unions, has faced dismal approval ratings throughout his first term in office. But the governor has indicated he plans to run for reelection and said that while he understands the politics surrounding Gist’s future, he still supports the commissioner.

“I’m in office to do the right thing and make Rhode Island better,” Chafee said. “I listen to everybody, but that’s my goal.”

Chafee’s potential opponents have mixed relationships with Gist.

Providence Mayor Angel Taveras, a likely Democratic candidate for governor, has expressed support for charter schools and teacher evaluations, but he has publicly argued that the NECAP was never meant to be used for a graduation requirement. General Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Taveras’s likely opponent in the Democratic primary, did not respond to a request for comment about Gist.

Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, who is expected to be the Republican nominee for governor, told WPRI.com he fully supports the work Gist has done as commissioner.

“She’s been very innovative and has the best interest of the students at heart,” Fung said. “Right now, what’s going on is happening all over the country and the world. We need to ensure that our students can compete with not just students from Connecticut and Massachusetts, but students from across the globe.”

Board of Education chairwoman Eva Marie Mancuso has also expressed support for Gist, but has not indicated whether she believes a three-year deal is appropriate. Trainor, the board’s spokesman, said Mancuso did not want to comment on the negotiations.

But the length of Gist’s contract is likely to be a major factor when the board meets Thursday.

Gary Sasse, the director of the Bryant Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University and a former head of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, said anything less than a three-year deal “would represent a tactical victory for the anti-Gist forces.”

“An appointment of less than the standard three years would represent a triumph of politics over educational policy,” Sasse told WPRI.com. “If Gist is the Board of Education’s choice, they should show their support with a three-year contract renewal.”

Elizabeth Burke Bryant, who heads up Rhode Island Kids Count, told WPRI.com she too hopes an agreement can be reached to keep Gist in the state.

“I feel like her leadership has led to some very positive strides for Rhode Island,” Burke Bryant said. “Particularly around things that are very important to closing the achievement gap between higher income and lower income among students.”

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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