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RI EDUCATION

Providence teachers vote in favor of new union contract

The agreement ends a year-long standoff between the district’s nearly 2,000 teachers and the Rhode Island Education Commissioner

The Providence School Department headquarters.
The Providence School Department headquarters.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE – Teachers in Rhode Island’s capital city finally have a new contract.

The Providence Teachers Union voted overwhelmingly to approve a three-year deal Friday that guarantees every teacher a one-time, $3,000 payment and modest raises through the 2022-2023 school year. The contract includes a 1.5 percent retroactive raise that covers the school year that just ended.

The agreement, which passed 1,015-25, ends a year-long standoff between the district’s nearly 2,000 teachers and state Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green, who has controlled Providence schools since 2019. The two sides made little progress on a deal during their tense negotiations, but Governor Dan McKee intervened last month and a deal was quickly reached.

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“Clearly they sent a message that they’re pleased,” Union President Maribeth Calabro said after the vote. “We’re really ready to just get back to work and stop having to worry about the elephant in the room, which is the contract negotiations.”

More than half of the union’s 1,940 members turned out to vote on a gorgeous summer night at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet, an event venue just over the city line in Cranston. Teachers hugged their friends, chatted about their summer vacations, and delivered a clear message that they support the new agreement.

Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has fiercely criticized the deal, arguing that it falls far short of the transformational agreement that was promised when the state took over the 24,000-student school system two years ago. He has said that he believes the state’s intervention allows for the union contract to be completely dismantled.

Aside from the pay increases and the $3,000 stipend, the contract requires teachers to participate in four professional development days on top of their 181-day school schedule. It also requires educators to hold parent-teacher conferences and attend up to 10 meetings called by principals each school year.

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The deal also gives school principals more flexibility when it comes to hiring teachers, although each school is required to establish a criterion based hiring committee that includes the principal and two teachers who will make recommendations.

In order to improve lesson planning, teachers with less than three years of experience will be required to submit plans to a principal on a regular basis. And any teacher who has a written performance improvement plan will be required to present their lesson plans to principals on a regular basis.

The deal also seeks to crack on the abuse of sick leave, particularly for teachers who regularly take Mondays or Fridays off. A principal who suspects abuse can meet a teacher, and suspected abuse “may require that a medical certificate be provided” to human resources.

Elorza has accused McKee and Infante-Green of “selling out” children in Providence, although his chief complaint revolves around teacher seniority. When asked on Thursday if he could point to another teachers’ union contract in the country that he would like to see for the city, he did not offer an example.

Infante-Green has repeatedly said that the best way to overhaul Providence schools is to reform the teachers’ union contract, offering lofty rhetoric for months that “something drastic” was needed to improve the district.

At times, she appeared to favor Elorza’s suggestion that she unilaterally change certain provisions in the contract, potentially around hiring teachers. Union leadership suggested that would prompt a legal challenge, which could take years to decide.

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In May, McKee assigned Tony Afonso, one of his top aides, to negotiate a deal with the teachers, removing Infante-Green from the process. Within two months, an agreement was reached.

“This contract is just the beginning of our work to produce better outcomes for Providence students,” McKee said in a prepared statement. “We need everyone on board to make it work. That means families, students, teachers, administrators, elected leaders and community members coming together to achieve a common goal – giving our students the very best opportunity to succeed. I appreciate the work and collaboration of all parties involved in getting an agreement across the finish line that prioritizes students and recognizes the hard work of our teachers, a task that some had written off as unachievable.”

Calabro, who called for an end to the state takeover earlier this year, said she felt relieved to finally have a contract in place. When asked Friday if she still wants the takeover to end, she said the union and state leaders “still have a lot of work to do.”

“There’s a lot of trust that needs to be built,” Calabro said.

Because the new contract is retroactive to the 2020-2021 school year, it takes effect right away. In addition to the $3,000 payment and a 1.5 percent raise they’ll get to cover the last school year. Teachers will also get a 2 percent raise of Sept. 1, another 2 percent on Sept. 1, 2022, and 0.5 percent on Aug. 31, 2023.

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Elorza was also critical of the unusual contract approval process because it was the first time a teachers’ union contract will not be approved by the City Council. The state takeover gives Infante-Green the sole power to sign off on the deal on the state side, which she did on Monday.

A spokeswoman for Infante-Green said Friday evening a fiscal note, which explains how much the contract will cost taxpayers, was not ready.



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