2014-03-13 / News

Education bills divide union, school board

By Ken Shane

There are currently two pieces of legislation pending in the General Assembly that would have an impact on the interaction between local school boards and teachers.

One of the bills has strong support from the Jamestown School Committee, but is opposed by the local teachers union. The other is vice versa: supported by the union, opposed by the committee. Sticking points on both bills include seniority issues and concerns about ceding power to the other.

Due to the uncertainty of local budget negotiations, school boards across the state currently send layoff notices to teachers on March 1. A bill sponsored by state Rep. Deb Ruggiero proposes to move that date to June 1. Bill supporters claim moving the notices would increase security among teachers in the final months of the school year.

School Committee Chairwoman Cathy Kaiser testified in support of House Bill 7026 on Feb. 8. On March 1 of any given year, she said, there are too many budgetary unknowns, including federal grants, state funding, tuition rates, insurance premiums and military enrollment.

“Moving the notification date to June 1 would allow school committees to have a clearer picture of finances for the following year,” Kaiser said. “As well as more accurate knowledge of impending retirements and resignations, resulting in fewer pink slips and fewer individuals being needlessly stressed.”

According to Ruggiero, this is the third time the bill has been submitted for consideration. She has been trying to negotiate with the union to get the bill passed.

“I’m hoping to get this over the goal line,” said Ruggiero, a Jamestown resident. “It has passed the Senate one year and didn’t pass the House. The next year it passed the House, but not the Senate.”

The bill currently remains in the House Labor Committee, having had one hearing before the panel. Ruggiero said it’s debilitating to be asked to work for four months after you’ve been laid of. Since municipalities do not have budgets by March 1, cities and towns are required by law to send out the layoff notices.

Ruggiero isn’t sure why the union opposes her bill. She said teachers unions are supposed to represent the teachers, and in her own conversations with them, she has found support moving the layoff date two months.

Massachusetts communities, by contrast, send out layoff notices to teachers on June 15.

Patrick Crowley is the government relations director for the National Education Association of Rhode Island. He said the union supports changing the layoff date, and has for years. There is concern, however. Crowley says changing the date without accounting for teachers’ rights to return to their jobs in inverse seniority would violate the collective bargaining agreements.

“It is the school committee association and the superintendents association that have held up the change for the past number of years,” Crowley said.

While the union is insistent when it comes to protecting teachers with seniority, Crowley said the issue is less about tenure and more about due process. Seniority is only part of the process, he says, and Ruggiero’s bill would remove protections that teachers are afforded by contracts and laws.

According to Crowley, most teachers are laid off for economic reasons since there is no budget when the notices are issued. He said layoffs are only part of the equation, however. There is also the recall of teachers.

“If there is no other factor in place, no allegation of impropriety, then a teacher should be recalled in the order they were laid off,” he said. “What Rep. Ruggiero’s bill does is eliminate the right to recall based on how they were laid off. It gives the superintendent and the school committee the right to recall anyone they want.”

Crowley said the bill gives a lot more power to school committees. The union has asked for an amended bill so teachers will retain the protections that are already in place.

“We’re fine if all they want to do is change the date,” Crowley said. “But they’re giving much more power under their proposal than they’re admitting. If this is simply because of finances, then once the finances are settled, bring people back in seniority order. This is an end around due process rights.”

The other bill being considered is House Bill 7193. In her testimony at the State House, Kaiser said the bill would limit the authority of school boards by requiring all nonrenewals be made in the inverse order of the affected teachers, and that teachers be reinstated in the inverse order of their suspension.

The problem with that system, according to Kaiser, is that teachers will be recalled based on seniority, without regard to what the teacher is qualified to instruct. Kaiser said using seniority as the sole criteria is in violation of the Basic Education Program. The state regulation specifies that each school board maintain control of its ability to recruit, hire, manage, evaluate and assign personnel.

“The Jamestown School Committee recognizes that continuous improvement of student learning must be the primary reference point for all decision making, including personnel hiring, assignment, retention and recall,” Kaiser testified.

Crowley said that the bill has the support of the union, and it would fulfill the school board’s desire to move the layoff date.

“The union supports moving the layoff notification date until later in the school year and has tried to work with the General Assembly to find a compromise that works for teachers and school committees,” Crowley said. “We hope someday leaders like Ms. Kaiser might be willing to meet us halfway on this important issue so some progress can be made.”

Stephanie Pamula, co-president of the Jamestown Teachers Association, diverted questions about the two bills to Crowley.

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