For Woonsocket students, teacher contract standoff has deep impact

For Woonsocket students, teacher contract standoff has deep impact

Students at Woonsocket High School say the ongoing debate over a teacher contract, and the work-to-rule status that resulted, has meant less day-to-day support for them. Among the WHS students who spoke with The Valley Breeze about the changes are, from left, Chablis Lavender, Isabel Rosario, Abigail Buote, Yanice Gonzalez, Jared Bessette, Caitlyn Tracy, Daliza Reinoso, Mariela Braxton and Rhiannon Sellars.
Union lobbies for budget increase as work-to-rule stretches into seventh month

WOONSOCKET – When Mariela Braxton moved to the city from Providence last year, she wasn’t expecting a difficult transition. But when she started at Woonsocket High School in August, what she found was a school community on edge, struggling to adapt to the changes caused by a political situation beyond the reach of students.

“The tension in the school was really heavy and negative when I got here,” she said. “Everybody that I know has been like, ‘It wasn’t like this at all.’”

Braxton and other students attribute that tension to the ongoing standoff between teachers and city administrators over a proposed pay raise that has kept members of the Woonsocket Teachers’ Guild (WTG) without a contract since last year. Members voted to go into work-to-rule status last September after negotiations between the two sides fell apart shortly before the start of the school year. Attempts to return to the table have yielded few results, and the issue is now stretching into its seventh month.

For city residents, the situation has been frustrating as negotiations continue behind closed doors. But for students at Woonsocket schools, it’s been a day-to-day reality as they try to navigate the tricky waters of work-to-rule, a negotiation tactic during which teachers work only to the letter of their contract.

Isabel Rosario, a junior at WHS, said one of the biggest changes for students has been getting access to teachers. Under work-to-rule, teachers refrain from the volunteer hours and unpaid commitments typical of the job, arriving at 8 a.m. and leaving at 2:15 p.m. sharp. For students, that means teachers who previously made themselves available in person or by email for extra help after school are rarely available and instead try to fit student requests in during the school day.

“If you fall back, you’re going to stay back until the teacher has time to get to your class and your work,” she said.

Rosario serves as secretary of the junior class and is in the process of planning this year’s junior prom. Under the current policy, she said, class officers haven’t been able to arrange a meeting after school with their class adviser and instead have all their interaction over email.

Students also spoke of a “chaotic” school atmosphere where teachers, left with fewer hours to do work outside the school day, attempt to grade papers in hallways during their free periods. Abigail Buote, a junior, said she feels she has less opportunity to learn, but recognizes students have no control over the situation.

“It’s kind of hard to deal with because we’re not given the extra help that we could have been given, but at the same time there’s not much we could have done because we’re the students,” she said.

The situation also affects after-school activities, with only those for which teachers receive a stipend – as opposed to working on a volunteer basis – continuing as before. While some activities, including band and sports, are unaffected by the policy, others, such as theater, have felt the impact of this year’s changes. Yanice Gonzalez and Jared Bessette, members of the theater program, said that in past years, Jen Maiello, the school’s longtime theater and dance teacher, held up to three after-school rehearsals per week with students in the final weeks before their April show. However, her stipend only pays for one of those rehearsals, leaving students only one day each week to rehearse with their teacher for an upcoming production of “In the Heights.”

“Work-to-rule has cut our rehearsal schedule to less than half what we had previous years,” explained Bessette.

With their teacher only available once per week, students have improvised, getting help from alumni and continuing to rehearse on their own. For students, the situation has thrown into sharp relief the amount of extra hours teachers normally put in on their own time. Gonzalez and other students said they think the situation has been hard on teachers as well, noting their commitment to students and the difficulty of balancing the situation with their request for a pay raise.

“I feel like most people don’t understand what the teachers’ job is. Without them, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” she said.

Lynne Beaudry, treasurer of the Woonsocket Middle School PTO and parent of a 7th-grader, said work-to-rule has also affected the middle school, where the atmosphere is also tense and teachers are less likely to be available after school. She said she feels frustrated by both sides of the debate as a parent and taxpayer but also a friend who sees the difficulty of the situation for teachers she knows.

“It’s been interesting. I feel for the teachers, I just feel that something needs to be taken care of. Somebody needs to give somewhere, and it’s just not happening,” she said.

Beaudry, who had two older children attend Woonsocket Middle School, said she’s noticed a growing change in the school over the past several years as parents become less involved and teachers turn over at faster rates. Jeffrey Partington, president of the WTG, blames the high teacher turnover on lower pay and smaller numbers of support staff such as social workers, guidance counselors and mental health professionals compared with other districts. The problem, he said, has gotten worse since the start of the contract debate, with teachers leaving at a rate of about one per week in January.

“People are going to start voting with their feet because they can’t make enough money and other districts can pay them better. That’s just a disservice to these other students who are left behind,” he said.

In recent weeks, the union has turned its attention to lobbying for an increase in education funding on both the local and state levels, with the current funding, according to Partington, unable to support either the needs of students or their own demands. Last month, the School Committee met with the City Council to offer an update on the union’s latest demand, but received no commitment of a budget increase in return, according to School Committee Chairman Paul Bourget, a negotiating team member. Meanwhile, the state’s projected aid contribution dropped even lower than expected, placing further strain on a department where the local budget has not changed since it received a 25 percent local increase in 2013.

“There’s no one else that we can ask, we as a School Committee have done that,” said Bourget. “If the union wants to bang on the state’s door, they can do that.”

Partington is hoping the state contribution will increase before budget numbers are finalized in June and placed responsibility on the city’s General Assembly delegation to lobby on the city’s behalf. He expects updated state budget projections to come out in April, at which point the WTG plans to put the city’s best offer to a vote by members. If the membership is not happy with the offer, he said, he doesn’t know what the outcome will be.

“Have we reached tipping point yet? I don’t think so, but I think we’re getting there,” he said.

Meanwhile, spring concert and show season is in full swing in the schools, where students continue with their activities despite the political standoff playing out around them. Rosario and others are looking forward to junior prom, even if the current planning confusion means she and other students have had to step up beyond what was expected of them in years past.

“We’re just trying to keep it together,” she said.

Comments

I never looked at it this way - seeing all of the activities that are not being done, these are all the things that teachers VOLUNTEERED to do. They did all of those things for the benefit of our kids, not because they were getting paid to do it.

How many of us volunteer to do more work at our jobs above our paycheck? Here's a round of applause to all of you teachers for going above and beyond.

Why wouldn’t the school committee and city council go to the state house isn’t that what we elected them for. Pass the buck to the teachers. You are the elected officials not the teachers. Fight for what they deserve. I cannot believe the teachers aren’t striking. Kudos to them for standing strong on this work to rule thing. Like It’s said in the article they are only following their contract. I am sick of my grandkids having different substitutes all the time though, but hey why would anyone want to teach here when they can get a lot more money somewhere else and have a contract. Can’t blame them for leaving. Do something City Council and school committee our kids are being hurt here yet you want to pass the buck. Elected school committee remember that. Hear the parents voices.

This "Work to Rule" action that has been put in place by the teachers is not, in case you are not aware, being done to benefit the teachers!

As always the Lame Excuses being put forth by the teachers and their unions...this is all being done "For the Kids"!

I don't know about the rest of you, using the kids and shortchanging them as to their many and varied needs during these critical, developmental, years of their lives to me, and I know many others feel likewise, is the EPITOME of being low lifes...more-so the personification of the word: SELFISH!!

But, why should we be surprised...this kind of behavior and deplorable conduct has become de Rigueur with our teachers and their unions - everywhere.

How about putting some numbers out there so the taxpayers can see what is being asked for and what is being offered,negotiating in a vacumn is not good for anybody.

Well AlphaRacer, the contract that the teachers have require them to EDUCATE our students. That's what they do from their required time to be in, until their required time to go home. But then again, they are doing this WITHOUT a current contract, aren't they?

All the "extras", like theater club and junior class advisers, are not covered in the contract. They volunteer their time. How much do you volunteer your time away from your own family? These teachers are not using the students as "pawns", they merely stopped all of their extra volunteering where they weren't getting paid.

Sorry. I feel for the educators, but kids being forced to miss out on things just to prove a point so you can get an extra percent or two is just over the line for me. Whenever teacher salaries are criticized by the public, teachers will always say, we deserve that salary because of all the things that we do "outside of the classroom" as if its part of the salary, but now that you want more suddenly its all "EXTRA" stuff that are taken away from the kids. Sorry. My sympathy is over. Kids should never even know that there is a contract dispute, they are there to learn, but now they are being dragged into it and likely being swayed one way. Just not right. I agree that you should probably get a raise, but fight for it on your own time and leave the kids out of it please.

I'm not the biggest fans of teachers since I think their overall wage and benefit package vs times "required" to work is quite sufficient, regardless of what other communities are paying! I also think Unions have long since out-lived their usefulness (being greedy self-serving organizations)!
That being said, I challenge most of you to think back to when the last time was that you arrived at work and were in position to start work at your required time (not just punching in at the required time), and not lined up at the time clock at the end of your shift to quickly run out the minute the time struck end-of-shift? I bet it could be counted on one hand! Also, how many of you volunteer your time at work for extra unpaid hours? Same answer! Why would you expect more from our teachers? It's total hypocrisy. We have no more right to expect more from them than we would do ourselves.
Where are all of you when the volunteers are needed for after school activities, even if it is to support your own children or other children of the community? Some of you may be working, but not all of you! Certainly not at the schools or playgrounds? THEY ARE YOUR KIDS! NOT THE TEACHERS'! The majority of you don't even support the teachers in the classroom even when your kids are at fault and need discipline, yet you expect them to stay after and help them! Most of you are simple hypocrites!
Remember the Golden Rule, Do unto Others as you would have them do unto You. Now is the time to exercise it. Step up to the plate and volunteer your services instead of criticising others for not doing their share. They owe YOUR children NOTHING more than a basic education, but you have been abrogating YOUR responsibilities for so long you can't tell the difference any more. Keep in mind you are not entitled to anything more than you have legitimately earned, so expect no more and no less from the people who are tasked with the important job of educating the future leaders of our Country.
To put things into perspective, think about the multi-million dollar contracts of athletes who can barely spell their names, running around, PLAYING GAMES, while teachers are educating our future, and we're worried about a few piddling dollars and "after school" volunteer hours! What have we come to?
The values that shape our children's thoughts are taught by our educators but are also taught in the home, but looks like the home portion has been sadly lacking!

THIS IS THE WHOLE POINT. Do you do extra unpaid work at your job? Do you come in to work and stay hours after your paid shift? Do you bring material home from work to do on your “free time”? You feel bad for the kids and you want this extra unpaid service to continue but it comes at a price my friend.

I think the charter schools for friends and family need to go ... Tear them down... We would have a much more honest mayor and better happier safe city if we had elected the late John Gotti for mayor instead of LBH ...

I have heard that 2013 is the last contract for the Woonsocket Teachers? Is that true????