WARWICK – Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, who made herself a lightning rod in the politically and emotionally charged issue of education reform, won a two-year renewal of her contract from the new Board of Education after meeting behind closed doors for more than two hours Thursday.
The renewal came with two 2-percent increases in her base salary of just over $190,000, one immediately and one next year. It also came with some provisions that keep the commissioner on a short leash.
She must undergo quarterly assessments from the board that will include “improved effectiveness in recognizing the rights and autonomy of school districts” and “respectful and meaningful collaboration with all education partners.”
“We’ve been through a lot in the last four years,” Gist said, “we have taken on a lot. It is very important to me that the teachers who are here and those who represent them understand I know that we have to do this together and we can’t have an education system that does not engage our teachers. I feel confident we have done a lot to do that, but I have very clearly heard the message that we need to do more and make the changes that we make based on feedback much more evident. We will be looking not only to get that feedback as we move forward, but get input into how we do a better job of that.”
Gist said she “heard the message loud and clear from the board as well as from the governor that they intend to help us carry that out successfully.”
Two union members on the board, Larry Purtill, president of the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI), and Colleen Callahan of the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals (RIFTHP) joined retired educator Mathies Santos in voting against the two-year renewal.
Gist told the board she is “grateful” for the two-year extension, although it was widely known that she wanted a three-year pact.
Gov. Lincoln Chafee issued a statement after the vote, saying, “I am pleased that we have reached an agreement with Commissioner Gist. The Commissioner and I have enjoyed a productive and positive relationship over the past several years, and I look forwarding to continuing to work with her on behalf of Rhode Island’s students.”
The board waited until the last minute to decide on Gist’s contract renewal; it was set to expire today.
Gist earned the enmity of many teachers by championing the standardized NECAP test as a graduation requirement, insisting on frequent assessments of students and teachers, and scrapping the practice of allowing teachers to choose classroom assignments based strictly on seniority.
, which was part of many if not most collective bargaining agreements between teachers unions and the state’s 36 school districts.
She also backed Central Falls Superintendent Frances Gallo’s plan to fire all of the teachers at Central Falls High School as part of a 2010 “turnaround” plan for the underperforming school. The teachers were rehired a month later.
Several hundred teachers packed the auditorium of Cranston East High School several weeks ago to list their grievances against the commissioner and calling for her to be removed.
As picketers walked in an oval outside the Community College of Rhode Island where the board was meeting --repeating chants such as “Just Say No; Gist Must Go,” hoping to sway board members as they assembled for the meeting – Robert Walsh, executive director of NEARI, reiterated that the removal of Gist was the “Number One” priority of teacher unions.
Asked before the vote what would happen in the event that Gist contract is renewed, said it would be “a choice between the tactics of Gandhi and King or more interesting tactics. I think it will just be passive resistance, we’ll do everything for the kids, but there isn’t going to be a lot of cooperation with the Department of Education.”
In a poll of public school teachers commissioned by the state’s two teacher unions, NEARI and RIFTHP, 85 percent said she should not be re-appointed; only 7 percent said she deserved another term.
That has political ramifications because Gov. Lincoln Chafee, elected as an Independent with heavy union support, will get the blame for the renewal of Gist’s contract. Chafee, who recently joined the Democratic Party, will need union help in a primary race if he hopes to be re-elected. Chafee, who appointed all of the members to the new education board, had publicly urged the board to renew Gist’s contact.
As vociferous as her opponents have been, Gist also has equally fervent supporters, including the state’s business community, who hailed her reform efforts as sorely needed in a state where they say too many job applicants don’t have the basic skills needed to do the work that is available.