Members of the Providence teachers union will vote on a new collective bargaining agreement Friday afternoon. The new teachers’ contract was supposed to be the centerpiece of the state’s takeover and turnaround of the Providence schools. But critics say it is far from the “transformational” contract needed to improve the struggling district. 

The tentative agreement contains a number of new provisions, as well as a pay bump for teachers. 

Teachers will receive a $3,000 lump-sum payment, along with a six percent raise, over the next three years, beginning retroactively in 2020. The contract increases the number of professional development requirements, and explicitly requires attendance at parent-teacher conferences.

The new contract bars administrators from assigning teachers both in-person and virtual classrooms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers required to work with students in schools and online, became a point of contention. Teachers with less than three years of experience will be required to show lesson plans regularly to school administrators.

The agreement also attempts to tamp down on abuse of sick leave, including requiring teachers to provide a medical certificate, if an administrator suspects improper use of sick leave. 

The contract largely leaves the issue of hiring, firing and teacher seniority untouched. The contract does configure school hiring committees to include two teachers and a school administrator, and allows for the interviewing of external candidates. A person with knowledge of both the old and new agreements characterized the hiring process laid out in the new contract as essentially unchanged.

Critics, including Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, say the contract makes hiring and firing teachers so onerous, that administrators cannot build the staff they want for their schools; something they say is essential to improving schools.

Gov. Dan McKee announced earlier this month that the state had reached a tentative agreement with the union after more than a year of contract negotiations. The previous collective bargaining agreement expired in August 2020. 

Both McKee and State Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green have been largely silent on the new contract. 

Elorza has been very vocal in his disappointment and condemnation of the new contract.

“This contract still falls far short of the transformational change that our kids, our families and schools need,” Elorza said to reporters Thursday afternoon, his second public briefing on the issue this week.  He has called on both McKee and Infante-Green to stop the agreement from moving forward on a vote. It appears unlikely that will happen. 

Elorza signed off on the previous union contract, but said state law made it nearly impossible to make significant changes during the negotiation process. Elorza said rewriting the contract was the central reason for the state takeover of the Providence schools in the first place.

“If this contract gets finalized, the Governor and the Commissioner sold our kids out,” Elorza said.

The contract, which is about 60 pages,  is characterized as “thick.” This provides teachers with many opportunities to submit grievances, which Elorza said ties up administrators.

A longstanding criticism of the contract is that it makes it nearly impossible to get rid of low-performing teachers. 

Seniority, Elorza said, is “still king.”

Union leaders say any teacher can be fired.

Elorza said residents and community members should be allowed to weigh in on the new contract before it is adopted. He said McKee and Infante-Green did not respond to his requests to discuss the contract. According to Elorza, Infante-Green was prepared to bring the union to court over the contract, prior to McKee becoming governor. 

Tensions between the leaders boiled over on Wednesday evening when Elorza confronted McKee at an event in Providence, during which McKee’s security detail stepped between the men. The incident was caught on camera by local television news stations. 

Teachers and union leaders say starting the year with a new contract, new superintendent, and a non-adversarial sentiment between educators and the state is the best way to improve the school district. 

Voting takes place at Rhodes on the Pawtuxet in Cranston at 5pm, where rank and file members are expected to ratify the new agreement.