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EXCLUSIVE: Gist Says Providence Teacher Firings Were Legal

Friday, March 11, 2011


Education Commissioner Deborah Gist has ruled that the mass firings of all Providence teachers was legal, in a letter to a state senator obtained by GoLocalProv.

Gist says that budget issues—such as the financial crisis facing Providence—can be a cause for terminating teachers, in a March 8 letter she sent in response to a letter from state Senator James Sheehan, D-Narragansett, North Kingstown.

“As to your first question, there is a clear precedent for the use of ‘financial exigency’ as just cause for termination,” Gist says in the letter.

Gist cited a 1982 case, Russell Arnold & Michael Clifford v. Burrillville School Committee. “In this case, the Commissioner held that ‘fiscal exigency’ could provide ‘good and just case’ for the termination of tenured teachers,” Gist writes. “In short, provided that there exists adequate evidence of exigent fiscal circumstances, financial exigency has been found to satisfy the ‘good and just cause’ element of statutory protection for teachers.”

Union: ‘Illegal, unwarranted and unconscionable terminations’

Her letter backs up the argument made by the City of Providence—that it needed to terminate all teachers because of its fiscal crisis. Next year, the city estimates that it is facing a $110 million deficit. To close the gap, Mayor Angel Taveras has said he will need to close some schools and dismiss a number of teachers—potentially hundreds of them.

State law says that school districts have to notify teachers of any possible changes to their employment by March 1. Because the city did not know where it would be making cuts by that date, all teachers got the pink slips.

The Gist letter comes as something of a blow to the Providence Teachers Union, which has argued that the city should have laid off, instead of terminated, teachers. Union President Steven Smith (pictured right) yesterday did not back down from his position that the terminations were illegal—without specifically responding to the argument Gist made.

“We have been consistent at every turn in saying that the mayor’s firing of teachers is illegal. Our efforts are focused on communicating with the mayor,” Smith said in a statement. “We feel confident that we can identify real solutions to address the city’s fiscal issues, but we need to be at the table working together to do so. We believe that money is better spent on educating students versus litigating these illegal, unwarranted and unconscionable terminations.”

Sheehan also claims that the firings were unjustified in his letter to Gist. “I am gravely concerned about the direction educational ‘reform’ has taken when injustices such as groundless terminations are employed to achieve a desired goal,” Sheehan wrote on March 1. “In light of the bad experience in Central Falls and the model cooperation shown in Providence, I believe this is a travesty that should never have taken place.”

Gist: Fired teachers still deserve due process

Gist, however, did not give a free pass to the city. In response to a question about whether terminated teachers had the right to due process proceedings before losing their jobs, Gist said she believed that they did.

“The nature and extent of the process due individual teachers is a question first for the school board that has issued the notice of termination,” Gist wrote. “Any question of the adequacy of that process would become an issue for potential appeal to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

Her letter comes as state lawmakers scrambled to introduce legislation that would extend the March 1 deadline which Providence has blamed for forcing its hand in issuing the mass termination notices. One bill, sponsored by state Rep Scott Guthrie, D-Coventry, not only extends the deadline to May 15, but also says that teachers laid off for budgetary reasons have the right to be hired back based on seniority.

The bill is backed by the two state teacher unions—the NEA Rhode Island and the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. (Click here to read more about the debate over the bill.)

One Statehouse source yesterday told GoLocalProv that the new bill shows the unions recognize that the Providence terminations were legal. “They’re trying to change the law because they know what Providence did was legal and they’re terrified that other mayors will try it,” the source said.

Yesterday, a spokesman did not respond to a request to elaborate on Gist’s official position regarding the terminations.


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