Judge orders Warwick teachers union not to strike, stage sick-outs

WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) – The Warwick teachers union has been ordered by a judge not to stage any sick-outs, strikes, or work stoppage of any kind for 10 days.

Judge Susan E. McGuirl said students “would be endangered” and deprived of their right to education if schools keep getting cancelled because of teacher absences.

The decision came after Superintendent Philip Thornton took legal action Monday morning following the third apparent sick-out in Warwick that caused three schools to be closed Monday.

The union continues to deny that any coordinated work action took place.

“It’s cold and flu season and not everybody has their flu shot,” Union President Darlene Netcoh told Eyewtiness News Monday morning.

“I’m not going to cast aspersions on anyone who is calling out sick,” she elaborated at a city council meeting Monday night. “If somebody calls out sick, he or she is sick.”

In a complaint filed by the Warwick School Department, the superintendent and the school committee against the teachers union, the plaintiffs claim the sick-outs are “tantamount to an illegal strike.”

The complaint also said the sick-out “constitutes an intentional and concerted effort designed to impair the normal operation of the Warwick School District.”

Both sides made arguments before Judge McGuirl Monday morning before she issued the temporary restraining order.

“It certainly looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and we believe it’s quite clear that this is a concerted job action,” Attorney Andrew Henneous argued on behalf of the school department.

Jeffrey Kasle, an attorney for the teachers union, said he takes issue with the term “sick-out” altogether.

“I think it’s coincidental,” Kasle said. “The ones who have called in sick are sick.”

Another hearing is scheduled for October 27 after the 10-day order expires.

Oakland Beach Elementary, Robertson Elementary and The Park School were forced to cancel classes Monday  after more than half the teachers at those three schools called out sick.

According to the superintendents office, teacher absences Monday were as follows:

  • Oakland Beach Elementary: 23 of 40
  • Robertson Elementary: 21 out of 35
  • The Park School: 17 out of 33

Mayor Scott Avedisian’s office said there were also a substantial number of sick calls at Greenwood Elementary, but the school was able to remain open thanks to substitute teachers.

The cancellations come after two previous apparent sick-outs on October 6th at Pilgrim High School and October 11 at Veterans Junior High. Both schools had to close in those cases, and students will have to make up the days at the end of the year.

The teachers union has been without a new contract since August 2015, and tense negotiations between the union and the city have been ongoing. The main sticking points include sick time, annual salary increases and weighted classroom sizes.

The union argues students with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) need more attention and assistance, and should be weighted more in order to keep classroom sizes down.

The school department wants to change the current sick time policy that gives teachers 90 sick days each, which includes short-term and long-term disability.

Kelly Smith, a parent with four children in the Warwick Public School system, is organizing a protest with other parents against the city at the school department on Wednesday afternoon, ahead of a planned mediation session between the union and the city.

“We’re done, we’re fed up,” she said in an interview on Monday. Her daughter Katie had to stay home from Oakland Beach Elementary because of the sick-out. “I felt bad for her…because she thrives in school.”

Smith said she supports the teachers in the contract dispute, particularly when it comes to the issue of class sizes.

“The teachers are why we stay,” she said.

At Monday night’s meeting of the Warwick City Council, Netcoh and one other resident raised concerns that the next scheduled Warwick School Committee meeting is scheduled for 7:15 Thursday morning, preventing teachers and parents from attending.

According to the agenda, the committee will discuss negotiations and arbitration with the union in executive session, and then will discuss the same topics in open session later in the same meeting.

“Certainly having a meeting at that hour isn’t conducive to true public discourse,” Netcoh said.

“The meeting focus is executive session items,” Superintendent Philip Thornton  told Eyewitness News via email. “Very brief meeting.”