PROVIDENCE – Speaking to a group of educators and local residents last Saturday morning at the Providence Career and Technical Academy, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green had good reason to sound optimistic.
After a whirlwind year that saw Infante-Green take control of the state’s largest school system, her team was finally coming together. She had just hired a new superintendent of schools, and the group that she was addressing is the one that will help her redesign Providence schools in the coming months.
But before she sent the newly appointed community design teams to meet in smaller groups, she had a simple request. If members become frustrated with a decision she makes or are unhappy about the direction of the school system, she asked that they talk to her before they air their grievances in public. Don’t go on Twitter, she urged.
“Let’s not do it the Rhode Island way,” she told the group.
Her request will soon be tested. As the community design teams go about their work, Infante-Green is now preparing for what will likely be the most consequential act of the state’s takeover of the capital city’s school system: a contract negotiation with the Providence Teachers Union.
Like any union negotiation, the talks could create a tense and boisterous atmosphere around the fledgling school makeover process. The union’s existing deal with the city expires Aug. 31, but Infante-Green said she would like to have a new agreement in place long before students and teachers return from summer vacation.
“I want to get this done in three months,” she said in an interview on Tuesday.
Both Infante-Green and Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro have repeatedly said everything is on the table as they prepare to negotiate, although both sides have mostly pointed to the need for more professional development – the contract requires just one training day a year – when asked for specifics.
What hasn’t been discussed in public are some of the thornier issues that could emerge, like Infante-Green’s preference to have more control over the hiring and firing of teachers as well as a more reliable evaluation system for educators.
A report on Providence schools released last summer by researchers from Johns Hopkins University repeatedly cited the 64-page contract – which dictates everything from salaries and benefits to the length of the school day down to the minute – as a barrier to improving student outcomes.
“The team was told that principals usually cannot hire from outside the district until all inside-the-district candidates have been placed, which means that principals may be forced to hire an underperforming, but senior, teacher,” the report stated.
Infante-Green and Peters met with all of Providence’s school principals Monday afternoon. She said the inability to fill the vacancies – in part because of the existing contract – is one of the most common concerns of school administrators.
In the lead-up to negotiations, the state has been working with its outside law firm Adler Pollock & Sheehan to conduct what it calls a “talent/HR analysis to better understand things like teacher retention and vacancies,” according to Department of Education spokesperson Meg Geoghegan. She also said Zack Scott, the district’s new chief operating officer, is also evaluating the school department’s existing human relations protocols and policies.
While the state law that allowed the state to take over Providence schools gives Infante-Green sweeping control of district policies, the law is largely untested when it comes to negotiating union contracts.
And those who have led contract talks say no negotiation is ever easy.
“When you are negotiating, you have to understand that the person on the other side of the table has a constituency that they answer to,” said Michael D’Amico, a former director of administration for the city of Providence. “Whether it’s the mayor answering to taxpayers or a teachers' union president answering to members, there are certain things that they just can't do.”
D’Amico worked on two teachers’ union deals between 2011 and 2014 – one was approved and the other was voted down by the union – and said those negotiations with teachers can be different than ones with other local unions because policy issues are more likely to come up in education.
Another challenge: For every goal that management has going into contract talks, unions are going to have their own objectives, D’Amico said. With the exception of offering pay increases, he said the city often has few options when the two sides find themselves in a stalemate.
"It’s very hard to generate leverage in municipal contracts,” he said.
Infante-Green may have more money to dangle during negotiations than she expected.
While Providence leaders have long warned that the district will face large budget deficits in future, a financial review of the district conducted by the consulting firm Ernst & Young found the district has flexibility when it comes to spending.
Among the ideas that state leaders are exploring is plan to offer an early retirement incentive to teachers, part of an effort to replace an aging workforce that is overwhelmingly white in a district where the majority of students are Latino and Black.
Calabro, the union president, said she is looking forward to beginning negotiations. But she knows there are plenty of eyes on Providence.
Randi Weingarten, president American Federation of Teachers, is scheduled to be in Providence on Feb. 29 for an event that will focus on collective bargaining, Calabro said.
Weingarten, one of the most powerful union leaders in the country, has clashed with the city’s last two mayors over union contracts, famously holding a rally on the steps of City Hall after then-Mayor Angel Taveras issued pink slips to every teacher in the district in 2011. (All of the teachers were eventually rehired.)
Calabro said she doesn’t expect Weingarten to play a key role in local negotiations, but Infante-Green said she has been in regular contact with Weingarten.
For his part, Peters, who doesn’t officially begin as superintendent until Feb. 20, said he’s hopeful that students are top of mind for both sides during negotiations.
“I’m focusing on the kids,” he said.