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RI EDUCATION

Providence superintendent: ‘We’ve paid more than $400,000 in union dues for people that don’t exist’

The city school department is refusing to pay any more, but the president of the teachers union argues that the district is attempting to “exert authority they don’t have.”

R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, left, and Providence Public Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters after the first day of school for prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade students in person at Spaziano Elementary School in September 2020.
R.I. Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, left, and Providence Public Schools Superintendent Harrison Peters after the first day of school for prekindergarten, kindergarten, and first-grade students in person at Spaziano Elementary School in September 2020.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

PROVIDENCE – The city’s school department has paid the Providence Teachers Union nearly $438,000 in union dues since the 2016-17 school year for teachers that were never hired, part of an agreement that allowed the district to bring in non-unionized substitutes for a lower daily fee.

Now, Superintendent Harrison Peters is vowing to end the practice, and is refusing to pay $129,000 in what the union calls “lost” union dues for the 2019-20 school year. The union filed a grievance, and is now asking an arbitrator to force the district to pay up.

“We’ve paid more than $400,000 in union dues for people that don’t exist,” Peters said on Monday, shortly after union president Maribeth Calabro called for an end to the state takeover of Providence’s schools and for Peters and Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green to be removed from their jobs.

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Union dues are deducted from members’ pay checks and provided to the union. The money can be used for a variety of purposes, including political advocacy.

The union and Peters and Infante-Green are locked in a bitter contract dispute, and have spent more than 300 hours negotiating with virtually nothing to show for it. The state took control of Providence, the largest school district in the state, in 2019, and officials say they believe that overhauling the contract is the only way to turn around the city’s failing school system.

The battle over union dues is separate from the broader contract discussions, but Calabro argues the district is attempting to “exert authority they don’t have.”

A provision in the existing union contract — it expired on Aug. 31, but it’s the agreement the teachers continue to work under — requires the district to hire enough long-term substitute teachers to cover the daily average number of teacher absences from the previous school year. Long-term substitutes are members of the union.

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In 2014, the Providence School Board and the union came to an agreement where the district would be allowed to hire non-unionized per diem substitutes at a flat rate rather than the more expensive union members, but the district agreed to pay union dues. District leaders believed they’d still be saving money overall.

Records show the district paid $437,812 in union dues for those teachers between the 2014-15 school year and the 2018-19 school year. In a grievance filed with the Providence School Board in September, Calabro argued that the district owed the union $129,000 for last school year.

Peters and attorneys for the district have a different view.

They argue that a controversial 2018 US Supreme Court ruling that public sector employees cannot be forced to pay union dues means that there is no way to guarantee that the long-term substitutes that were never hired would have joined the union if they were hired.

The Supreme Court case was brought by Mark Janus, an Illinois state employee who filed suit against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees claiming he didn’t agree with positions taken by the union. The decision was considered a major blow to unions, but the financial impact has been minimal in union-friendly states like Rhode Island.

“Why should we have to pay that?” Peters asked in an interview this week.

Calabro maintains that nothing has changed, and their existing agreement should remain intact. The Providence School Board denied the grievance, and the matter is now before an arbitrator.

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“The contract is clear,” Calabro said. “It’s just more union-busting behavior.”

Tensions between the union and management have escalated in recent weeks as the two sides have been unable to reach a deal on a new contract. The union voted no confidence in Peters and Infante-Green last week, and Calabro called for the end of the state takeover on Monday.

The state took control of Providence schools on Nov. 1, 2019, after a scathing report from researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that the district was plagued by poor test scores, crumbling school buildings, and low morale among students and teachers. The union supported the takeover, but it has clashed with city and state leaders ever since.

Calabro has not found much public support from state lawmakers for ending the takeover or getting rid of the two leaders. Peters is under contract until 2023, and Infante-Green’s contract expires next year.


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