PROVIDENCE — Governor Daniel J. McKee on Tuesday announced a tentative agreement on a Providence teachers contract.
Although McKee declined to release details of the agreement, issues of seniority and diversity have arisen in the past.
The state took over the Providence school district in 2019 after a scathing report by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Officials said they believed that overhauling the teachers contract was the only way to turn around the state’s largest school district in the state. State and city officials spent hundreds of hours and more than $1 million on negotiations with the Providence Teachers Union, with little progress.
But during his weekly news conference Tuesday, McKee said he expects the union to ratify the agreement in the next few weeks.
“I look forward to working with the teachers, along with the administrators, parents, students, community leaders to move Providence in that spot where it becomes a school of choice for families that live in the City of Providence,” McKee said.
After the news conference, McKee released a joint statement from him, state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro, and Providence Interim Superintendent Javier Montañez.
Specific details on the agreement will not be released until the Providence Teachers Union has discussed the tentative agreement with its members and taken a ratification vote, they said.
“We are all anxious for the new school year to start,” the joint statement said. “We faced unprecedented challenges this year, but are proud of how our educators and school staff adapted to do everything possible to overcome obstacles under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.”
In March, former Superintendent Harrison Peters took aim at the union contract for the district’s inability to hire and retain educators of color.
In an email to staff, Peters wrote 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.”
That e-mail did not sit well with Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro, who accused Peters of attempting to sidestep negotiations by airing out grievances directly with her membership. In May, Peters was asked to resign after coming under fire for hiring a school administrator who has been charged with assault for allegedly forcibly massaging a teenage boy’s foot.
During Tuesday’s news conference, McKee told reporters, “We are very pleased with the way the AFT stepped in.” He said he had spoken on Tuesday with Randi Weingarten, the American Federation of Teachers president, on Tuesday, “pledging to make sure we are working together to make good things happen for the students that go to Providence public schools.”
Weingarten had been scheduled to meet with McKee when she visited Rhode Island in May.
McKee, who took office in March after former Governor Gina M. Raimondo became US secretary of commerce, also said that his office had stepped into negotiations, “taking the lead but also building on what was there.”
He said that in recent weeks negotiations had been “making progress,” and he received news of the breakthrough on Monday night in a call from his senior deputy chief of staff, Tony Afonso, who had been leading negotiations for the governor’s office.
“The idea was to come to an agreement before the beginning of the school year,” McKee said, “and we are fortunate that we have hit that target.”
While details of the agreement will “speak for themselves” once they become public, he said, “We believe that both sides came to a good place.”
He noted that when his office got involved, the negotiations were still in a mediation process, with former state Supreme Court Justice Francis X. Flaherty hired as a $350-an-hour mediator. But he said, “We were able to quickly move off of that mediation.”
“We are all in agreement that we want our public schools around the state of Rhode Island to provide great education for the people who live in our state,” McKee said. “Providence is no different. And we do know that Providence as well as other communities in the state have lagged behind our peers in Massachusetts.”
McKee, a Democrat, served as mayor of Cumberland, where he led the drive to open Blackstone Valley Prep, the first mayoral charter school in Rhode Island.
McKee, who graduated from Cumberland High School, on Tuesday said, “I wanted my high school to be a school of choice” and after investments, “that high school is a school of choice in our community in a way that it wasn’t before.”
So, he said, “I know that this can happen in any community around the state of Rhode Island. And I’m looking forward, once this contract is ratified, to provide a blueprint in terms of how I think that is going to happen, and what role the governor can play and what role municipal leadership, can play.”
Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza issued a statement, saying, “Two years ago, we brought the state into Providence public schools for the express and sole purpose of transforming the teacher’s contract. It is widely recognized that the transformation of our schools cannot take place without a top-to-bottom reform of the teacher’s union contract.
Elorza, who is considered a possible opponent to McKee in the 2022 governor’s race, said, “I eagerly await to see the details, but anything short of a transformational contract will be selling our kids short, and it is something we will not accept.”