PROVIDENCE — When Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green led the state takeover of Providence schools last November, she wasn’t shy about her goals.
She told anyone who would listen — teachers, parents, reporters — that she believed a few tweaks in priorities would lead to marginal, early wins for the district under its new leadership. And despite a global pandemic that has disrupted every aspect of life for families across the city, she can point to a decision to provide bus passes to more high school students, better parent engagement strategies, and a uniformed curriculum as accomplishments in the first year of the takeover.
But Infante-Green has always maintained that a true transformation of Rhode Island’s largest and most dysfunctional school district would require an overhaul of the teachers' union contract, which expired Aug. 31. In an interview Tuesday, she bluntly described the status of negotiations as going “nowhere.”
And then she drew a line in the sand.
“By the end of the year, if we have not made changes, we’re going to have to do something drastic,” Infante-Green said. “And it will be drastic.”
The apparent deadline set by Infante-Green is sure to rankle the leadership of the Providence Teachers Union, which has hosted most of the negotiating sessions every Monday and Thursday from 3 to 6 p.m. for several months. But it’s also the clearest sign yet that the state is considering entering uncharted legal waters by unilaterally altering the contract.
“If that’s what they’re hoping for, they should have just done it instead of wasting everyone’s time,” union president Maribeth Calabro said Tuesday.
Calabro agreed that negotiations have moved at a “glacial pace,” suggesting that the two sides haven’t even been able to come to terms on basic starting points. The state is seeking to move to what is known as a “thin contract,” which would define salaries, benefits, and working conditions, but little else. The union prefers a thicker contract, Calabro said, because it requires the district (or the state) to follow through on commitments.
For example, Calabro said she and her members are asking for more support for students who are homeless or on the verge of being homeless, potentially by hiring more social workers or providing more counseling. The state maintains those arrangements can be made outside the contract, but Calabro said it’s easier to break promises when they’re not in writing.
“We want families to know that this is what we’re asking for,” she said.
For nearly a decade now, bitter disputes between Providence teachers and management have become the norm.
In 2011, when then-Mayor Angel Taveras issued pink slips to every teacher in the city, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten led a protest on the steps of City Hall (nearly all of the teachers were eventually rehired). In 2014, the teachers voted down a contract with Taveras just as he was running for governor. In 2018, the teachers shouted down current Mayor Jorge Elorza during his State of the City Address, and protested his reelection campaign announcement.
Elorza supported the state taking over his school system last year in large part because he did not believe he had the power to make serious headway on a union contract. He said the state had more authority to enact unilateral changes.
The state took over the district after researchers from Johns Hopkins University issued a blistering report that painted Providence as having one of the most dysfunctional school systems in the country, with low-performing students, poor morale, and crumbling school buildings. Infante-Green, who took over as commissioner last year, infamously said she wouldn’t send her children to any of Providence’s public schools.
But Infante-Green offered a hopeful message for families, and she won over some teachers, even if they weren’t always pleased with her harsh tone about the district. During multiple public meetings in the summer of 2019, Calabro repeatedly pledged to keep an open mind and work together with the state as the takeover moved forward.
Both sides now acknowledge they might have been too optimistic.
“I kept promising that we would get this done in three months,” Infante-Green said, referring to the contract. “Everyone was laughing at me. I guess they’re laughing now, too.”
Calabro, who has been part of five contract negotiations during her tenure in union leadership, said the current discussions have been more tense than normal.
Infante-Green has attended nearly every meeting, along with one of her top advisers, Victor Capellan. Kevin Gallagher, a top aide to Governor Gina Raimondo, also sits in on most meetings. Charles Ruggerio, an attorney for the district, and attorney Robert Brooks functions as the state’s lead negotiator. The union side includes Calabro, members of her leadership team, and attorney John DeSimone, a former House majority leader.
Calabro said the talks often involve a lot of philosophical conversations, but she acknowledges there’s a fundamental difference between what the state believes its powers are as part of the takeover and what the union believes.
“It’s swimming in peanut butter in a lead suit,” Calabro quipped.
Infante-Green said her top priority is hiring for the 2021-2022 school year, and she believes the existing contract has too many “hoops” to go through, a common complaint about teachers' union agreements.
Because there’s no true precedent for the scale of the takeover of Providence schools — the state does control Central Falls schools, but that’s largely a financial arrangement – there is no clear legal path for the state to take. When asked what she meant by “drastic action” if an agreement is reached, Infante-Green declined to comment.
“I don’t think I can share that,” she said.
While the adults continue to bicker, the district is still struggling to serve its 24,000 students.
Superintendent Harrison Peters said Tuesday that an initial assessment of students currently underway shows that student learning losses since last spring have been steep.
He said all elementary and middle school students are taking the Entering Research Learning Assessment, and initial results suggest most students are more likely to do worse on their Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System (RICAS) exams in the spring than they did when they were last tested in 2019.
Peters and Infante-Green said they have a similar problem with Providence’s high school students. Last year, they reached out to the Community College of Rhode Island to see if they could enroll more high school seniors in college-level courses, but they found that fewer than 400 students qualified to take the classes because they lacked proficiency in math or reading.
“We asked the college to lower the criteria and we still couldn’t get them in,” Infante-Green said.
Still, Peters maintains there is at least some reason for optimism. He started the job in February, weeks before COVID-19 shut down schools across the country. He said he’s be impressed by the resilience that both students and teachers have shown throughout the pandemic.
When it comes to academics, he said the district has invested in a more culturally responsive curriculum, and he beamed about students who embraced a novel called “Esperanza Rising,” which follows a seemingly wealthy family in Mexico as they move to the United States and realize that they’re poor. He said it’s a story that resonates in a district where 91 percent of students are not white.
“When you walk into schools, people are literally captivated by that text,” Peters said.
There are other signs of hope, too. He said the district has made more than 5,000 outreach calls to families, and officials have taken to knocking on doors of homes where they know children live if they’re not in school. Sometimes they leave door hangers reminding families that school is open.
“If someone says they don’t have a computer or a [Wi-Fi] hotspot, we walk to the car and get them one,” Peters said.
But while they maintain that a strong foundation is being built, Peters and Infante-Green said their position hasn’t changed on the contract. Without a new agreement in place, the hard work will never begin.
Calabro vowed to remain at the table, but she acknowledged it’s unlikely that a deal can be reached before the end of the year.
“Not unless we start meeting a whole lot more,” Calabro said.
Dan McGowan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.