PROVIDENCE – With Providence preparing to begin the teacher hiring process for the 2021-’22 school year, Superintendent Harrison Peters is taking at aim the union contract for the district’s inability to hire and retain educators of color.
In an e-mail to all staff, Peters wrote that that 79.5 percent of teachers are white in a district where fewer than 9 percent of students are white. He suggested that using seniority as the only determinant for job placement “means that the newly hired educators of color we have worked so hard to recruit are the most likely to lose their positions or become reassigned, despite their talents and skills.”
The message is sure to escalate tension between Peters and the union, which have been locked in a bitter dispute over a new contract for the entire school year. The state took control of Providence schools in November 2019, and both Peters and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green have said that overhauling the contract is vital to the success of the intervention.
“As we continue with teacher contract negotiations, I ask that its leadership consider whether current policies, such as seniority-driven consolidations, align with our shared goals of equity and diversity,” Peters wrote.
The message landed with a thud to Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro, who accused Peters of attempting to sidestep negotiations by airing out grievances directly with her membership. Union attorneys are now considering filing a complaint against Peters with the Rhode Island State Labor Relations Board.
“That email really didn’t do so well in my members’ eyes in terms of trying to circumvent collective bargaining,” Calabro said. “I don’t think he realizes the adverse impact that letter had.”
It’s not uncommon for seniority to be management’s pet peeve in any union contract, but tying it to workforce equity is likely to hit a nerve with the union’s largely white leadership. Peters, who is Black, wants 33 percent of teaching positions to be filled by educators of color by 2025.
Calabro said the union also wants more teachers of color, but she said the district recently cut its peer assistance and review program, known as PAR, which provides support to younger teachers.
“That’s a legitimate ask,” Calabro said. “We want more teachers of color. We want more multilingual teachers in our ranks. There’s nothing in our contract that precludes the districts from hiring them.”
Peters cited the annual “consolidation” process, where the district and the union identify positions that will not be continued the following school year, as an example of how the contract favors veteran teachers, who tend to be white. The process allows any displaced teachers to apply for open positions within the district.
“Under our current contract, these placements are made by seniority only—in other words, last in, first out,” Peters wrote.
Consolidation is different than the non-renewal or layoff notice deadlines, which are outlined in state law. The district was required to issue non-renewal notices for performance reasons by March 1, and can do the same for fiscal or programmatic reasons – like cuts – by June 1. The deadline for layoff notifications are also June 1.
Peters wrote that the district has been making an effort to promote diversity by collaborating with local teacher preparation programs and encouraging high school students to consider teaching as a career, but, “these efforts are not enough if the district is unable to reform policies that inhibit our ability to hire educators of color or make it harder to retain those hires.”
He pointed to a study released last month from the Center for the Study of Educators at Brown University’s Annenberg Institute that found Providence’s applicant pool is small compared to its peer districts and racial and ethnic diversity is low among jobseekers.
“When the teacher workforce is diverse, students of all races and ethnicities are more likely to graduate and pursue higher education,” Peters wrote. “Rates of out-of-school suspensions, which disproportionately impact students of color, decrease, while referrals of diverse students to gifted and talented programs increase.”
Peters and Calabro met for several hours Monday for another session of contract negotiations. Calabro said the two sides have met more than 50 times over the last year.
Calabro also said she spoke to new Governor Dan McKee for 30 minutes last weekend, and they largely discussed the vaccination process. On Monday, his top education advisor, Christine Lopes Metcalfe, attended the negotiation session.