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RI EDUCATION

How Rhode Island’s takeover of Providence schools unraveled before it really got started

Two years ago, the Providence Teachers Union supported the state’s intervention. Now it wants control to go back to the city.

The Providence Teachers Union held a rally opposing school reopenings outside the Rhode Island Department of Education building last fall.
The Providence Teachers Union held a rally opposing school reopenings outside the Rhode Island Department of Education building last fall.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — On a hot July morning in 2019, Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro sat by herself in the auditorium at Hope High School, quietly jotting notes as she listened to a new, straight-talking education commissioner lay out a compelling and overwhelming case that the city’s schools were in need of a dramatic overhaul.

Calabro had seen her fair share of would-be change agents come and go in her 24 years as a Providence teacher, and she had outlasted all of them. In five years as the union president, she had come out unscathed from two tense contract battles with two different reform-minded mayors, and was more powerful than ever.

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The commissioner, Angelica Infante-Green, was a Dominican-American woman from New York City who was crisscrossing the city to make the case directly to parents that Providence schools were broken and she wanted to fix them. She spoke in English and Spanish, often reminding crowds that public forums were the easy part.

“Everybody wants change until change comes,” Infante-Green said that day, a phrase she would repeat nearly every day that summer.

The message resonated with most residents, and Calabro agreed to lean in to the changes that Infante-Green was seeking. The union supported the state’s bid to take total control of Providence schools later that year, even though that meant that it would be negotiating a new union contract with Infante-Green rather than the mayor.

Less than two years later, and with the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowing nearly all of the takeover, Calabro now says that the relationship between the union and Infante-Green has deteriorated beyond repair, and she is asking state lawmakers to give control of the school district back to the city of Providence. She is also calling for Infante-Green and Superintendent Harrison Peters to be removed from their positions.

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Now the union has taken votes of no-confidence in Infante-Green and Peters, and the future of who will oversee 24,000 students in the state’s largest school district hangs in the balance, with neither side showing a willingness to budge.

“We had hope that our state takeover here would provide the much-needed support, resources, and changes to help our students move forward,” Calabro said during a Monday press conference. “And we had hope that our educators’ collective skills, experience, and expertise would be seen as a welcome part of transforming out schools. Sadly, our hopes have died.”

Calabro acknowledged that the union doesn’t yet have a sponsor in the House or the Senate to help end the takeover, and leadership in both chambers didn’t immediately signal support for such a change. Governor Dan McKee said “everyone needs to come to the table, give the mediation process a chance, and act in the best interest of our students.”

The union and Infante-Green have spent more than 300 hours at the negotiating table since the union’s contract expired on Aug. 31, 2020, but even that process has fallen apart in recent weeks.

The two sides still meet twice a week in the union’s headquarters, but they now sit in separate rooms, and a mediator — former state Supreme Court justice Frank Flaherty — walks back and forth to present proposals to each group.

On Monday, Infante-Green and Peters spoke to a Globe reporter on a Zoom call from the union’s office while the two sides were scheduled to be negotiating.

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“It is about control for them,” Infante-Green said, referring to the union. “They have never been there for the community. They’re feeling very stressed out now.”

As for the contract, Peters was blunt: “We’re not anywhere. We’re just not anywhere.”

Earlier this year, both sides said they believed they were making progress on a new contract, but talks stalled when Governor Gina Raimondo was nominated to be US commerce secretary by President Biden.

Raimondo supported the takeover, and assigned a top aide, Kevin Gallagher, to monitor negotiations. Gallagher has since joined Raimondo’s staff in the commerce office, which has left the McKee administration playing catch-up on contract discussions and the overall takeover.

The most recent sticking point between the union and management has revolved around a provision in the current union contract that gives veteran teachers preference over newer teachers when it comes to hiring. Seniority tends to be a sacred cow for public employee unions, and the teachers have resisted changes that would give Infante-Green and Peters more control over the hiring process.

Both Infante-Green and Peters say they believe the Crowley Act, the state law that gave them the power to take control of the school district, allows them to make unilateral changes to the contract. But they fear that such a tactic would send the two sides to court, prolonging a series of negotiations that has already resulted in the city paying more than $1 million to lawyers advising management.

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Calabro accused Infante-Green and Peters of blaming the union contract for their inability to recruit new teachers to the district. She said the district is experiencing a “mass exodus” of teachers, and there are 65 teaching vacancies.

“Teachers are exhausted and disheartened by the culture of finger-pointing and vitriol, which is the current state of leadership, and is intensifying day by day,” Calabro said. “It is no surprise that new applicants are going to other districts, where teachers are treated with respect and appreciated for their expertise.”

So can the two sides resolve their differences?

Kenneth Wong, an education policy expert and professor at Brown University who has advised city and state leaders on a wide range of school funding and reform initiatives over the past decade, said he sees the next few weeks as crucial to finding common ground.

Wong said the state deserves some credit for some initial progress during the takeover. The state has issued a clear set of goals for Providence schools, like raising the graduation rate from 73.6 percent in the 2018-19 school year to 89 percent by the 2024-25 school year, and slashing chronic absenteeism from 37 percent to 10 percent during the same period.

But for the takeover to succeed, Wong said McKee should intervene and “spend some of his friendly, social, and political capital to make this work.” He said the two sides should take a few weeks to cool off, but they need to reconvene shortly or he could see the state taking “a more drastic measure.”

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“The window is getting tighter and tighter, and they know that,” Wong said. “The window of the next four weeks is critical.”

Providence School Board President Nicholas Hemond, who has functioned as a liaison between the union and management ever since the state took control of the school system, said both sides need to be more reasonable with their expectations.

Hemond said he considers the union “to be good partners” with the district, but they’re not going to sign off on dramatic change overnight.

“If it’s revolutionary change, that’s going to have to happen in the court house, so go get it done,” Hemond said. “You’re not going to change the entire school system and fix every problem with one contract.”

“Change happens incrementally,” Hemond said.


Dan McGowan can be reached at dan.mcgowan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @danmcgowan.