December 15, 2004

The Quiet Army: Parents at a School Committee Meeting

Marc Comtois
On short notice, I decided to attend last night's Warwick School Committee meeting. I was prompted by a story in the Warwick Beacon detailing the intent of the Warwick Teachers Union to "make a statement" at the meeting to voice their exasperation at what they perceived as disingenuousness on the part of the School Committee. The union broke an agreement of confidentiality regarding the arbitration hearings, an agreement that they insisted upon in the first place, to claim that the school committee had rolled back its offer to April 3, 2003, “as if there had never been any negotiations at all.”
But [Committee Member John] Thompson, Superintendent Robert Shapiro and the department’s arbitrator, Rosemary Healey, believe teachers haven’t been told the full story. While the offer as of April 2003 was submitted in arbitration, they say it does not affect the offer made following the City Council approval of the budget in June. The council chopped $5.5 million from the school request, requiring the committee to eliminate a retroactive pay increase for the year teachers had worked under the terms of its former contract.

Thompson made a distinction between arbitration and negotiations, saying the union at any point could return to negotiations and the committee’s last offer stands.
According to the Beacon article, Healey stated that the April 2003 numbers were brought into the arbitration hearings "to bring context to where negotiations are now. She said it is the intention of the committee to honor all tentative agreements reached thus far with the union. The union has been working under the terms of its previous contract that expired in September 2003." (For updates on negotiations, at least from the School Committee's perspective, go here. I have yet to find any such site for the WTU). In short, there appears to be much confusion over exactly where the negotiations/arbitration stands. This has been exacerbated by the confidentiality imposed on the arbitration panel. It would seem that open hearings would alleviate much of the suspicion. Regardless of which side accuses which of stalling, an agreement must be reached soon.
Committee Chairwoman Joyce Andrade said in the statement that the committee was “hoping to at least get the non-financial issues settled with arbitration hearings”... [and] said the June 2004 offer would remain on the table as long as the committee has the money to finance it. She fears if an agreement is delayed beyond this spring that the council could again cut the school budget request forcing the withdrawal of the proposal. She said that School Finance Office Robert Dooley was prepared to outline the committee’s June offer at the next arbitration session. That hearing has been set for Jan. 12.
With this as context, and because I have never attended a meeting before, I figured it would be a good opportunity to begin doing so. I was treated to quite a show. (For a more "professional" account, go here). I arrived at Winman Jr. High School with teachers outside the doors chanting, holding signs and generally making a ruckus. The School Committee voted to go into closed session at 6:30 PM, meaning the open meeting wouldn't ocurr until around 8-8:30. Meanwhile, the teachers assembled and milled about. They wore stickers that said "No more excuses/real solutions" and there was even one person dressed to look like the Grim Reaper, and holding a scythe with the word "Negotiate" scrawled upon its face.

When the open session resumed, Committee Chairwoman Joyce Andrade was immediately heckled by a union member, who yelled such things as, "you don't know what you're doing, just admit it" and "get someone else to negotiate." (I believe the heckler was mentioned in the aforementioned "professional" account, but have no corroboration so I will not name the individual). The Pledge of Allegiance was then said and all was quiet until it was announced that Superintendent Robert Shapiro was given a new 2 year contract. As soon as the contract was approved by a voice vote of the committee, the teachers stood up en masse and proceeded to leave the auditorium. On their way out, they yelled comments, such as, "what about us," "we want one too," "quit lying to the public," "who got the high test scores, not you," (part of the agenda was to go over how Warwick schools are performing on state and national tests) and one aimed particularly at Andrade (by "the Heckler") to "get that smirk off your face!"

After the teachers left and things settled down, the rest of the meeting continued, including a review of Warwick Schools' test scores and performance ratings in which it seems good progress is being made. This was done in front of an audience of approximately 60 people, most of whom were in attendance to protest a new requirement that all students, including those carrying an "A" in a course throughout the school year, will be required to take final exams in all subjects. This is contrary to current policy and was to be implemented in the middle of the school year. (For more information regarding this topic, please see my post on this at my OSB site). After this discussion was concluded, the auditorium emptied to only a handful of individuals and remained so until the meeting was adjourned.

In general, I feel like I have a good idea of the nature of these meetings, even though this particular meeting had more drama than normal. However, while taking note of how the heat generated by one specific issue can bring such a large turnout to a school committee meeting, I was struck by one profound observation. In an auditorium that can hold 500 people, there were approximately 300 teachers, 10-15 administrators and support people, a few people making proposals to the school committee, and a few students and teachers concerned over an acute issue (mandatory testing). The rest of the crowd was composed of curious parents, which consisted of...Me. Thus, the title of my post reflects the new mantra used by the U.S. Army in its current recruiting campaign. I was indeed an Army of One. The next meeting is January 11. Would anyone care to join my army?