Rhode Island Superintendent Calls for Talks, Not Firings

A district superintendent who fired all the teachers from one of the state's most troubled schools said Wednesday she's willing to negotiate with its teachers' union after it publicly pledged to support reforms.

Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo said an offer made late Tuesday by the Central Falls Teachers' Union gives her hope the issue could be resolved without mass firings. The offer includes support for a longer school day and providing before- and after-school tutoring for students.

The Central Falls school board voted last week to fire 93 teachers and staff from the city's high school after the end of the school year. No more than half the staff could be hired back under federal rules.

Gallo said she wanted the union to start participating in talks aimed at improving the school that also include other parties, such as parents. She said if the plans conflict with language in the teachers' contracts, the union and school officials could then negotiate.

The teachers' union president, Jane Sessums, said she was cautiously optimistic both sides could talk. Her union is appealing the firings to the school district's board of trustees and has filed a complaint with the state Labor Relations Board, saying the firings are unfair.

"We have from the very beginning said that as long as we're back at the table, that's where we want to be," Sessums said.

State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Deborah Gist earlier ordered Gallo to choose from one of four reform options, including mass firings, to improve the high school. Only 7 percent of 11th-graders tested this fall were proficient in math, while 33 percent of the high school students tested proficient this fall in writing and just 55 percent were proficient in reading. Less than half of students graduate from Central Falls in four years, state statistics show.

Gist earlier said the process is not a negotiation, but she also indicated that Gallo could approach her with another plan.

"I'm pleased that the teachers have reached out and that Dr. Gallo is going to work with them in the planning process," Gist said in a written statement. "Our focus is on how we can ensure that the children of Central Falls receive an excellent education, and that is always going to be improved when all of the adults are working together."

Gallo said she initially negotiated with teachers about lengthening the school day, instituting a regular tutoring schedule and requiring teachers to attend after-school development sessions and get mandatory summer training. Gallo said she had money to pay the teachers for some, but not all, of the extra work.

When talks broke down, Gallo opted for mass firings.

President Barack Obama on Monday mentioned the firings in a national address on education and said they are an example of the need for accountability over student performance.

"So if a school is struggling, we have to work with the principal and the teachers to find a solution," Obama said. "We've got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements. But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show any sign of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability."

He continued: "And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests — 7 percent."