PROVIDENCE – The uneasy détente between the union representing Providence teachers and the state education commissioner who seized control of the city’s public schools last year appears to be over.
In a series of testy text messages dating back to late December, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten appeared to warn Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to back off her public criticism of the teachers’ contract, implying that she would lose a showdown over collective bargaining because most Providence residents support the educators.
Weingarten, one of the most influential union leaders in the country, was in town Saturday to attend a conference organized by the city’s teachers’ union. She referred to the messages and disagreement during her remarks, criticizing Infante-Green for repeatedly citing the teachers’ contract as one of the barriers to improving student outcomes in the struggling district. A Globe reporter tracked down Infante-Green at a separate event Saturday afternoon, and the commissioner shared the messages.
The back-and-forth started when Infante-Green complained that the union had scheduled its forum on the same day the state had scheduled its own community engagement event about the city’s school system. (The state eventually moved its “community day” to March 7.)
Weingarten took offense, telling Infante-Green that it was “insulting” that the union would need to clear its event with the state. She then compared the commissioner to former New York City Schools chancellor Joel Klein, who worked under then-mayor Michael Bloomberg and frequently clashed with the teachers’ union.
“Our polling from Providence demonstrates that if there was fight, the educators would prevail,” Weingarten wrote. “We haven’t done what we would normally do – we have sent many messages to you and the Gov instead. With all respect, you are acting and saying what Joel Klein would have said to me.”
Reached Sunday evening, Weingarten questioned why Infante-Green shared their private messages. Under Rhode Island law, work-related text messages from public employees are considered a public record.
“What surprises me about this is that management is really focused on the conflict while the union is really trying to solve a problem,” she said.
‘“If the union wants me to help them, I will be back in Providence. I have no interest in having any private conversations with the commissioner because God only knows if they’ll be shared.”’
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten
The private text conversation showcases the fissure that has formed between the state and the union since the state took control of Providence schools late last year. Infante-Green led the takeover after a scathing report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University detailed widespread dysfunction throughout the district.
Maribeth Calabro, the president of the Providence Teachers Union, was initially supportive of the takeover, in part because the union previously had a bitter contract dispute with Mayor Jorge Elorza that took more than a year to resolve.
The Johns Hopkins report made several references to the union contract as one of the district’s biggest challenges, noting that it includes provisions that make it difficult to hire and fire teachers, and that it requires teachers to participate in just one day of professional development each year.
In their text message conversation, commissioner Infante-Green told Weingarten, the national union head, that she has tried to avoid a public confrontation with the city’s teachers. She said she has been “killed in the media for not saying anything against the union.”
“I am concerned by the information that is being given to you,” Infante-Green said. “I am a person of my word. I have gone above and beyond to be silent and not be divisive.”
But Weingarten accused Infante-Green of taking “swipes” at the union and not including teachers in the planning process for the state’s turnaround plan for Providence schools.
“I don’t know how to be clearer,” Weingarten wrote. “You have lost whatever goodwill Evelyn and I created.”
Evelyn DeJesus is the executive vice president of the AFT, and was also part of the text message chain with Infante-Green and Weingarten.
Apart from highlighting the escalating conflict between the state and the union, the text messages reveal something else: The extent to which a national union leader is keeping close tabs on the state’s takeover of Providence schools, even in a presidential election year where the union figures to play a significant role in selecting a Democratic nominee.
In fact, Weingarten traveled to Houston after the event in Providence to personally endorse US Senator Elizabeth Warren on Saturday evening.
Indeed, national politics could be adding to the tension between the union and local leaders. Even though Governor Gina Raimondo and Infante-Green say they have kept Weingarten up to date on all significant developments since they began discussing state intervention in Providence schools last year, their top aides have long feared that national politics could interfere with the turnaround effort in the city.
Raimondo added fuel to the fire when she endorsed Bloomberg for president. Weingarten has strongly advocated for union members to oppose Bloomberg’s late bid for the Democratic nomination, and has encouraged union members to support Warren, former VP Joe Biden, or US Senator Bernie Sanders.
Infante-Green, who came to Rhode Island last year after working in the New York State Education Department, has worked with Weingarten for many years, and has said she believes keeping an open line of communication with the union is the best way to make changes in the district.
Despite her criticism of the commissioner, Weingarten told reporters Saturday that the union has “given the governor the benefit of the doubt for wanting to take the schools over from the mayor.”
“There’s an opportunity here using collective bargaining to actually be the vehicle to strengthen schools and to give kids the schools they deserve, and to deeply respect teachers,” Weingarten said.
The union contract expires Aug. 31, but Infante-Green has said she hopes to reach a deal in the next several months.
Asked Sunday if she expects to return to Rhode Island during union contract negotiations, Weingarten told the Globe she is willing to stay involved.
“If the union wants me to help them, I will be back in Providence,” she said. “I have no interest in having any private conversations with the commissioner because God only knows if they’ll be shared.”