Providence teachers still working without new union contract

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Seven months into the school year, teachers in Providence are still working without a new contract, as the city and the union continue to negotiate behind closed doors.

The two sides have been in mediation since last fall, when the 1,900-member union overwhelmingly rejected a proposal from former Mayor Angel Taveras that would have removed a no-layoff clause from the contract, maintained criterion-based hiring and provided more autonomy for individual schools.

The election of new Mayor Jorge Elorza slowed discussions on the contract, but Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Reynolds-Calabro told WPRI.com the city submitted a new proposal last week. She said she plans to meet with administration officials and the mediator this week, but offered no timeline for when a deal could be reached.

“I wanted an agreement months ago,” Reynolds-Calabro said. “I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you, but if the other side continues to take forever, this could take a while.”

The Elorza administration has not commented publicly on the status of negotiations, but spokesman Evan England said “public school teachers play a critical role in our city’s success.”

“The administration is working diligently with all parties to develop a contract that works for teachers, students and stakeholders throughout Providence,” England said.

The union contract expired Aug. 31, but Taveras thought he had averted a prolonged contract battle when his office announced a deal shortly before he was set to compete in the Democratic primary for governor. Taveras lost the Sept. 9 primary and declared “there is nothing left to negotiate” when the union voted the contract down in late September. The two sides entered mediation soon after.

Reynolds-Calabro, who is still in her first year leading the union since succeeding longtime president Steve Smith, has long maintained that her members had “serious reservations about the vagueness” of a provision in Taveras’s proposal that could have awarded raises to teachers who took on more responsibilities. It is unclear if Elorza’s offer is similar to his predecessor’s.

The three-year deal the union rejected last year included a 1.5% raise in the second year of the contract. The third year would have included a 2.5% raise unless a new performance-based compensation system was agreed to. As union president, Reynolds-Calabro said she would have had “complete veto power over the system.”

Raises for teachers during the 2015-16 fiscal year that begins July 1 were not included in a school department budget proposal that was approved by the Providence School Board Finance Committee last week. The full board must still approve budget proposal and the school’s department final budget is ultimately approved by the City Council.

The Providence Teachers Union is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers, which in Rhode Island is known for having strong – and large – local unions with a weaker state-based central government. The National Education Association Rhode Island, the state’s other major teachers union, is known for having a strong state organization that assists its smaller local unions.

Once Reynolds-Calabro and the Elorza administration come to terms on a new contract, the deal would go before the full union and then the City Council.

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

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