PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A Providence high school teacher who was terminated in 2006 was on the city’s payroll last year after a settlement agreement that impacts every school district in the state.
The case of Mount Pleasant High School math teacher Bernard McCrink spanned nearly nine years, culminating in a $71,944 payment in 2015.
The money was paid to McCrink after a Superior Court decision that ruled Providence had missed a March 1 deadline to notify him he was being terminated. The district made the move in September 2006, so the ruling meant the district had to pay him for the entire rest of that year.
Charles Ruggerio, a deputy city solicitor for Providence, said the March 1 deadline is an “impossible” one to satisfy.
“If I am to terminate a teacher who engages in some conduct which you would move to terminate in September of this particular school year, in order to terminate that teacher you would have to have notified him or her before March 1 of last school year,” Ruggerio said. “Any subsequent termination by any school committee which doesn’t adhere to the March 1 termination deadline will result in a statutory severance for a teacher.”
James Parisi, a top official with the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals union, denied that the law amounts to mandatory severance.
“People who are being considered to be let go ought to have a period of time where they can prove themselves,” Parisi said. “It’s frequently the case where people would … get a [termination] notice in February but they would have a couple of months to work to show improvement before the final termination action is taken.”
He added that the deadline is mostly used for probationary teachers – who are in their first three years of service – rather than tenured teachers who have been on the job four years or more.
In 2014, the General Assembly changed the law to allow the notification date for financial-related layoffs to be pushed back to June 1, but kept the just-cause March deadline intact.
Ruggerio said the McCrink battle has set a precedent for all future termination cases statewide.
In the September 2010 ruling that upheld McCrink’s termination but found Providence violated the March 1 deadline, Superior Court Judge Susan McGuirl called the early date “an undue burden.”
“However, this Court may not ‘rewrite the statute by judicial interpretation.’ […] It is the responsibility and role of the General Assembly to address these concerns,” she wrote in her decision.
McCrink’s attorney, John DeSimone, declined to comment. DeSimone also serves as the No. 2 Democrat in the R.I. House of Representatives.
In February, the North Kingstown School Committee voted to begin the termination process for a teacher who the superintendent said refused to give the PARCC exam.
During the meeting, a lawyer for the school committee said the board had to act fast because the teacher “had to be notified by March 1.”
Dr. Phil Auger, the superintendent of North Kingstown schools, said the teacher may keep her job if she administers the exam this month and confirmed they moved to begin the firing process to get ahead of the March deadline.
Parisi said the law was understood by administrators before the Superior Court decision in the McCrink case, which he said was challenged by former Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist.
“It’s clearly understandable by school administrators,” Parisi said. “Everyone in the state knows about the March 1 notice because it has been law for decades.”
A 2014 review of teacher termination deadlines by the policy group Education Commission of the States found Rhode Island and West Virginia have the earliest deadlines in the nation. Other states – including neighboring Massachusetts – don’t have a statutory deadline. Some states leave it up to districts to make their own policy.
Every state has an appeal process for a teacher to fight a termination.
A bill proposed by state Sen. Louis DiPalma, D-Middletown, would eliminate the March 1 deadline for “just cause” terminations, “in which case the governing body need only provide reasonable notice and a hearing,” the bill states.
Parisi said DiPalma’s bill will face resistance from unions, adding the March 1 deadline also protects teachers from districts that might want to fire all of their teachers. In 2010, one week before the March deadline, the Central Falls school board voted to terminate every teacher at the under-performing high school there.
The union and administration eventually came to an agreement averting the mass firing.
“The March 1 date gives great job security for public school teachers who have suffered under mass terminations here in this state within the past decade,” Parisi said. “If we didn’t have the March 1 notification date with the ability of the teacher to finish the school year, 88 public school teachers in Central Falls might have been shown the door immediately.”