CRANSTON – Public school teachers from North Smithfield to Newport jammed into the auditorium at Cranston High School West Monday and for well over two hours unloaded a long list of grievances against Education Commissioner Deborah Gist with the stated intention of convincing the new state Board of Education to not renew her contract next month.
Emotions at the event ran the gamut from pep rally to lynching party as one teacher after another blasted her for being a bully, for demoralizing teachers and disparaging their professionalism, for forcing them to sacrifice teaching time to write up student evaluations, assessments and preparing them for high-stakes testing as well as for creating “an environment that is poisonous and deadly for our development as teachers.”
Although the event was organized by the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFT) and the National Education Association of RI (NEARI), the state’s two major teachers unions, RIFT President Frank Flynn said, “This is not a union event, this is a teacher event.” There were computers outside the auditorium that teachers could use to electronically sign a petition to “Dump Gist.”
A stenographer took down each speaker’s comments and there was a video camera to record the proceedings. The stenographic transcript and the video recording will be presented to the Board of Education before its next meeting on Thursday. The board is scheduled to discuss the renewal of Gist’s contract on Thursday, but will not take a vote on the renewal until its June meeting, according to Annie Messier, assistant to board chairwoman Eva Mancuso.
Christine Hunsinger, spokeswoman for Gov. Lincoln Chafee told The Times Monday that the governor “hopes that her contract can be worked out and Commissioner Gist stays.” Speakers threatened to vote against Chafee’s re-election next year, and to encourage others to do the same, if he does not oust the commissioner.
In a written statement issued shortly after the teachers’ event began, Gist issued a statement that said: “As we work together to transform education in Rhode Island, I believe that all educators, myself included, should receive regular evaluations that provide us with feedback to help us improve our performance as professionals. As the Board of Education proceeds with my performance review, I understand that the leadership of the two statewide teachers unions have called a meeting for Monday afternoon, at which teachers will have the opportunity to express their views on my job performance. I welcome this feedback, just as I welcome specific suggestions from educators as to how we can build a better mutual understanding to improve student achievement. I am hopeful that in the coming years we can avoid acrimony and focus on our common goal of preparing students for success.
“As Commissioner of Education,” Gist added, “I am well aware that I must at times advance policies and initiatives that require our professional educators to change current practices – and that these changes can prove to be challenging and uncomfortable, at least initially. While it is important to take into account all points of view, including the teachers’, I cannot and do not base my decisions on public outcry or popular opinion. Rather, I base every decision I make on what is in the best interest of our students.”
Flynn referred to a poll taken of 402 teachers from the two unions last month which he said shows that teachers “do not feel they are respected, they don’t feel that people are listening to them, and that’s a tragedy.”
Depending on what was being said, the teachers clapped and whooped loudly, or booed and hissed to the point where Flynn asked them to be more quiet as their responses were drowning out the speakers and the stenographer could not record the remarks accurately.
Although NEARI Executive Director Robert Walsh invited people who support Gist to speak – “We are not like the commissioner,” he said, “we’re not going to shut down dissent – none had approached the microphone as the forum neared its third hour.
Alfred Pannone, a teacher at Cranston West, told of art and music teachers being laid off and other teachers being brought in to “teach to the tests” to increase scores on the controversial NECAP (New England Common Assessment Program) standardized tests. “On a personal level,” he added, “all of Ms. Gist’s behavior is characterized by documented condescending comments and a bullying posture toward teachers and the districts that they work for.
Gist has aroused the ire of teachers by, among other things, firing all the teachers in Central Falls High School in 2010 as part of a “turnaround plan” for the school (the teachers were reinstated several weeks later), forbidding the use of seniority as the sole basis for assigning teachers, and championing the use of the NECAP test as a graduation requirement.
A Tolman High School teacher, Heather Rodrigues, said “In my district, I have wonderful students, but we have problems that stem from poverty and economic issues. I have hole in my ceiling that leaks and is taped together with a garbage bag. Rodrigues said one of the major reasons she attended the meeting is that “I am sick of the unions being portrayed as evil leviathans that have nothing to do with teachers. As for the idea that my union doesn’t represent my wishes, that is categorically untrue. I never understand how people can claim to be pro-teacher but anti-teacher unions.”
“Race to the Top was a crock,” declared teacher Darlene Netcoh, a teacher at Warwick’s Toll Gate High School. “The empress has no clothes, and it is about time this state realizes and calls her out on the fact that she has no clothes. She is not doing a thing to improve education, she is doing only things to improve her standing and go someplace else.”\
Race to the Top is a federal competitive grant program that awards states that are implementing creative education policies. Netcoh said Race to the Top money went to charter schools and evaluation schemes.
Camille Nixon, a Pawtucket school teacher, said the new teacher evaluation system instituted by Gist, “presumes mediocrity.”