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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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Gist should shut her pie hole, is she a freakin lawyer now! She was involved in the debacle in CF and look at how great that system is doing?

Comment #1 by Happy harry on 2011 03 11

Maybe the state could use their financial crisis as a reason to fire her and send her back to wherever she came from. She could be replaced by one of the thousand of unemployed Rhode Islanders, perhaps a displaced teacher.

Comment #2 by Mike Cran on 2011 03 11

If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich. JFK

Take Note!!!!

Comment #3 by jb plijyger on 2011 03 11

Happy Harry, you don't seem very "Happy". Are you a teacher? If not a lawyer? If not, an accountant?

If so, could you explain how we can fix the 110 million deficit in Prov. without strapping the many taxpayers who are also unemployed, hanging on by fingernails and hoping their taxes don't go UP. Maybe you could offer that to Mayor Tavares as a solution...or would you rather we just continue to lie to the taxpayers?

Comment #4 by Bob Council on 2011 03 11

Gist has more leadership and dedication to betterment of education than anyone else in RI, she is definitely on top of the issues and is focused on improving our educational system. Those that don't see that are part of the problem.
The educational system has turned into a retirement scheme. There are plenty of teachers that have come from the private sector because they couldn't make it there and have been hiding behind the UNION shield of seniority. There are plenty of good teachers that we want to retain and promote to leadership to better our educational system, these are the people we want to keep because they know how to best teach our kids and will be most likely to demand that the UNIONs and the GA get out of the way.
Keep up the good work Gist, we need more like you to push our education to the top.

Comment #5 by Gary Arnold on 2011 03 11

Skunk head don't care about no teachers. She justa wants to get a new skunk stripe for her skunky head-- and maybe some new eyelashes too.

Comment #6 by s lightyly on 2011 03 11

The unnamed source is absolutely wrong in claiming the Guthrie bill was filed because we were concerned that the Providence mass-firings were legal. The Providence mass firings violate 16-13-2, 16-13-3 and 16-13-6 as well as other provisions of dues process and the union contract.

The Union compromise to define layoffs more broadly, extend the layoff notification date to May 15, but preserve the March 1 notification date has been around for two years, long before Providence fired all its teachers and forced them to re-apply for their jobs.

By the way, what do the mass firings in Central Falls last year and Providence this year have in common? They were both done by appointed, non-accountable school boards.

Jim Parisi, RIFTHP Field Representaive / Lopbbyist

Comment #7 by James PARISI on 2011 03 11

When did the terms "firing" and "laying off" become one in the same? There is a big difference and I hope the laws reflect those differences. Unfortunately the only people who seem to know the difference are hiring managers who when they see someone was “fired” versus “laid off” they just throw that resume in the trash without looking at it any further. So there is a huge difference when someone is trying to get a job and eke out a living. If I were a newly minted teacher I wouldn’t even consider for a moment to work anywhere in RI and take the chance my resume would have to reflect being fired. No friggin way!!!

Regarding the lawfulness of a massive firing. I’ll admit I’m not a lawyer but it seems to me that they had the option of laying off teachers rather than firing them. Now everyone knows the point to the firing was to circumvent the teacher contract where laid off teachers are hired back based on seniority. They really want to hire back good teachers and eliminate the hangers on, dead beats, clock watchers, etc. I’m all for that so in a way I hope they win in court. However, they are putting a fig leaf over such an obvious lie when they say it is strictly based on economics. If I can see that clearly then I would think a judge would immediately be able to see the same thing. Gist is a little misguided or has a blind spot to think this action will hold up in court. Personally, I think although it could go either way it is presumptuous of her to presume she and Providence are standing on solid legal ground.

Providence, by the way, already has an improved and more streamlined procedure for getting rid of the lousy teachers. It was recently adopted by both the school department and the union (yes, the union). The union has been working with the school department to make changes and provide give backs. Now of course, since they have a knife sticking out of their back that has probably changed. Every other town and city union members have now seen what happens when you work with the administration and this action has ruined any chance that other unions will ever work with any administration. It’s too bad that Providence was too lazy to employ the process to rid the schools of lousy teachers. Folks we never seem to get our money’s worth from both the school administration or many of the teachers.

Comment #8 by Thoughtful One on 2011 03 11

@James Parisi, lobbyist/RIFTHP (Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals)
You are soo right, the Providence and CF firings were done be appointed school boards, however, they are accountable to the legal tax paying citizens of RI in trying to get better education to our KIDS.
They are not being incented as you are to preserve status quo and in the case of RI's educational system, a failing system.
These people, the school boards, have the duty to take education back from the UNIONS that have set up Ponzi scheme that takes money from the dues paying members to pay off politicians to buy support for a teacher’s pensions system and health care system, early retirement, Accruing vacation and sick days, etc., all regardless of their qualifications to teach our kids. Pretty bad deal for the kids and parents, this has to change, we have seen enough failing in RI.
@Thoughtful One, Contracts are what the unions live by. Tthe unions don't come to the table to cut deals unless they have no options, they run a one way game, always have.
We don't want to stop at hurting their feelings, we want to stop this waste of money and talent by diluting it with sub par teachers and systems to support better quality of education for our kids.

Comment #9 by Gary Arnold on 2011 03 11

Tavares explained in the Projo that the problem is that teachers who are laid off go into a substitute pool where they are paid benefits and an extra $25,000 a year even if they are not needed as subs. He said that enough teacher might be fired because of the school closing that a substantial number would not be needed but would still have to be paid. He said the city cannot afford to pay any employees for not working. It's tought to disagree with that. The problem seems to be the pool requirement.

Comment #10 by Pam Thomas on 2011 03 11

Hey Thoughtful One,

Where on a resume should one put fired or laid-off? I've seen a lot of resumes in my day and yet to have seen one that said a candidate had been fired or laid-off from any job. By the way, the firings as opposed to lay-offs are about the substitute pool not hiring back by seniority. Get your facts straight.

Comment #11 by Max Diesel on 2011 03 11

Maxc Deisel...I've read thousands of teacher resumes and never seen one with "fired" or "laid off" on them. Too much cool aid for that guy....

Comment #12 by Bob Council on 2011 03 11

Max: I am never surprised when someone who hasn’t a clue tells others to get their facts straight. The pool is a major consideration but it doesn’t stop there. And if you actually used some common sense you would have known that. Why would anyone stop at the pool when they can do the same to all of them. I’m actually for throwing seniority out and keeping the good teachers however I do not have confidence in the administrators and politicians enough to believe they just won’t go out and pick strictly by wages who they fire. I question the legality of it all as well.

I guess you and Bob missed the point completely on being fired vs laid off. Maybe you guys are lucky enough to still have a job so you wouldn’t have a clue about that either. Well here’s some info for you, even though a resume doesn’t list a firing the employer usually has you fill out a form and one of the items they always ask is “why did you leave this job”. DUH!!! The minute you walk out that door the resume is already in the trash can.

By the way guys if you two were actually well read people you might be a little worried about that 75 million. This whole thing is jeopardizing those Race to the Top funds. Arne Duncan said he would pull them away from RI if they don’t follow proposed steps……(hint) firing all teachers was never one of those steps. I’d like to say more but you guys will just have to read about it all.

Comment #13 by Thoughtful One on 2011 03 12

should lay off teachers, not being fired

Comment #14 by William Clark on 2011 03 12

Thoughtless One,
Just keep making it up as you go. The mayor said the reason for the firings was because of the sub pool. Do you have information to the contrary? Is he a liar? Your resume scenario is full of crap. I’ve been involved in the hiring process in both the public and private sector and no legitimate employer tosses a resume without first giving a qualified applicant an opportunity to explain. Drastic times call for drastic measures Thoughtless. My favorite line from the teachers is, “Where’s the just cause?” The answer is there’s no money. A fact the unions will never acknowledge as just cause.

Comment #15 by Max Diesel on 2011 03 13

What are you talking about, Thoughtful?
Nothing has happened over night, we are in an educational system breakdown that has been failing for years. This is about getting education to the kids with the best teachers without wasting money and offering retirement to non-competitive teachers.
It's about the kids, the UNIONs and their GA minions will always go the way of making it bigger and more expensive as their measurement of success, it doesn't work that way, even you should know that.

Comment #16 by Gary Arnold on 2011 03 13


So you’re telling me you actually trust a politician’s words? HUMPH!!! Unlike you I can look at the bigger picture and see how they can go beyond the temp pool with this firing and then rehiring. I guess you can’t see that or won’t admit that it would be very tempting to the administration to bring back only the cheapest teachers.

I have been in management for over 30 years, Maxi-, and if you think employers don’t go on to another job candidate at the speed of light when they have a candidate that has been fired you are then truly ignorant of the hiring process during a time when there are so many qualified but unemployed candidates to choose from. I sincerely doubt you have experience of any significance in how employers hire people.

I happen to agree with the fact that there is no money. Something has to be done and if the mayor can get away with firing rather than laying off teachers it certainly would help the situation. With that said however, I think the union has a strong point when they say there is no just cause. This question will take both parties to court for certain and as I simply said the outcome is not certain.

Maxi-, I think logically and look at things as they are…not what I think they should be. I deal with the reality head on. You seem to listen to one side and adopt everything you hear from that side such as believing the mayor will only hit the temp pool. He may do only that but there are so many times we are told one thing and they go out and do another. In any case time will determine whether or not you or I are correct. I actually hope you are correct about the mayor’s intentions its just I wouldn’t be so sure about that as you tend to be.

By the way you continue mixing terms up like they are the same thing. You said: “Where’s the just cause?” The answer is there’s no money. A fact the unions will never acknowledge as just cause.” So here’s yet another lesson for you. “Just cause” means a legal reason why someone should or has been fired. I thought with your lengthy experience and deep understanding of human resources that you would have known that already. Again this makes me doubt the veracity of your claim to know and be involved in hiring processes. Lack of money is not a “just cause” however it is a reason for “laying off” employees. See the difference, Maxi-? Have you heard of “onerous debt” Maxi? That is what the city should be claiming as the reason it has fired all Providence teachers, it would also allow the city to change the pension payouts, benefits and many other costly responsibilities they currently have. It also fits the situation much more closely rather than trying to take short cuts as they are doing now. But then RI politicians habitually do take short cuts rather than actually thinking about RI’s future.

Comment #17 by Thoughtful One on 2011 03 15


Please reread my comments. I’m not for the unions and in fact I strongly believe they have hurt this state beyond comparison. I also believe our politicians have hurt the state as well since they chose to do the union’s bidding all these years in order to get re-elected time and time again. Additionally I blame the voters of this state for not doing their job to vote in all elections allowing the minority of union voters to unduly influence elections….which is where this all begins.

Look at the last election. The state is in the sh&%%er and unemployment sky high and not even 50% of the voters even care to take a few minutes and cast their votes. They are the people who have the most blame if we want to place blame on a certain group.

Gary, the point you didn’t get from my posts is that I agree with removing ineffective teachers and downsizing the retirement and benefits of teachers. I also think the same should be done for the firefighters, police, etc. So what I’m talking about is the mayor should try to do something more appropriate to the situation (like using onerous debt) rather than trying to take a short cut by firing teacher without just cause. This will end up in court and I have my doubts that the city will prevail since the case will only be about just cause…not about money. On the other hand “onerous debt” is about money and I think the city would have a much better case and would more likely prevail.

I’m just being factual and logical about the whole situation……just like a judge will probably look at this further down the line. I think the mayor is taking a huge risk here. If they don’t prevail in court the city will have to compensate every single teacher that was fired without cause AND to put more salt on the wound they will get their jobs back and be on the hook for the entire legal costs. I’d rather see them do this thing the right way even if it takes a bit more time and effort. The downside is just too steep.

Comment #18 by Thoughtful One on 2011 03 15

OK Thoughtful,
You have a point of view, I would guess the Mayor has facts that support his position and actions, he too would know the consequences of not winning.
I am fully supporting all drastic actions as soon as possible as the clock to bankruptcy is ticking. In one way bankruptcy would be the one clear way to clean up the mess and start fresh. With this Mayor I would feel we are in good hands to do what is best for all of the legal tax paying citizens.

Comment #19 by Gary Arnold on 2011 03 15

While the Spock imitation is entertaining, it apparently doesn't come with an alternative solution to the problem. Yes, I am sold by one of the most liberal candidates ever elected as mayor of Providence who feels the need to apply the emergency brake despite his political base. There is definitely something refreshing about his approach that gives him credibility. I understand the legal ramifications of his action but I'm betting that the union will negotiate a settlement. They know they're rolling the dice on this one.

Comment #20 by Max Diesel on 2011 03 15

Well I don't fully trust any politician. I do happen to like Tavares' immediate action personality and that he is willing to go directly in the face of the unions. I also know he is a Havard trained lawyer and knows quite a bit about how the legal system works. I hope he doesn't lead Providence down a dead end alley with what appears to be a very iffy case for firing every teacher in a whole sale fashion.

I personally don’t like the idea that he never notified the union leader for Providence (Smith) before hand of the course of action he was taking. Smith found out when the media finally told him about it…..this after Smith had been working with the city on give backs and significant changes to seniority that basically watered seniority down to nearly nothing. A decent person would have notified Smith of what was going to happen. I realize it is very important to fix the budget ASAP so maybe that might be the reason for taking the mass firing approach. But it has generally been my experience that quick fixes usually cause longer and more costly solutions where a little extra time taken can be more effective and prevent unnecessary problems down the road.

Max, that isn’t a Spock imitation….that’s how I think. Too many people today let the media or some group like conservative or liberal groups do their thinking for them. They also tend to think in only one direction or even with their feelings. I wish they would learn to study things from more than one point of view and get to really know what the truth is because we would all be better off. This subject is a good example as a matter of fact. Just look at how my point of view has bugged you and others even though I would also like to see the unions lose. What’s up with that? It seems to me most people can’t handle the truth (to borrow a line from the movies) or even a slight variance from their beliefs without going off their rocker about it.

Comment #21 by Thoughtful One on 2011 03 16

Commenting is not available in this channel entry.