October 28 Ward Letter

I hope you are managing your sleep deficits – the drama of the Red Sox keeps many of us up until the wee hours, reducing productivity across New England. This week’s letter discusses parent engagement in the public schools, bus transportation and “work to rule.”

On Monday night (Oct. 22), Councilwoman LaFortune and I co-hosted a meeting for parents and interested residents concerning the recently concluded strike by school bus drivers, the Providence Teachers Union “work to rule” policy and ways for parents to have their voices heard. We were joined by School Board members, the Superintendent and the President of the Providence Teachers Union.

The School Department Oversight Committee reviewed the school bus driver strike in more detail, which I will describe below. With regard to “work to rule,” the Teachers Union President noted that the Union had agreed to allow teachers to write college recommendation letters as an exception to the general policy of refusing work outside the specific dictates of the contract. A number of parents raised specific issues at their school that were not known to the Providence Teachers Union President or the School Board leadership. I am hopeful these concerns will lead to further “exceptions” granted to the “work to rule” policy adopted by the Teachers Union. More generally, I can understand as a conceptual matter that an individual teacher upset about the slow pace of contract negotiations may make the personal decision to restrict her or his work to the minimum requirements, but I do not understand why the Teachers Union believes it is appropriate to prohibit individual teachers from doing more for students if the teacher has this (what I believe to be commendable) wish to serve students even in the wake of poor relations with management. I believe the Providence Teachers Union’s decision to relax “work to rule” for college recommendations was based on their assessment that parents were upset with their policy, which was hurting children. I am hopeful that the Union will see the wisdom of relaxing the application of “work to rule” to other aspects of teaching work (such as meeting with parents after school hours, as some parents cannot leave work during the day) to allow individual teachers to pursue their profession based on their own personal and professional ideals.

At the meeting, we also discussed the value in parents organizing, perhaps forming a Providence Parents Union to go along with the Providence Teachers Union and the Providence Students Union. A number of parents expressed their frustrations and concerns that the public schools are failing to address for their children. In an ideal world, these concerns would be addressed more thoroughly and more expeditiously, but the Providence Public Schools is a large and inadequately funded program. These challenges will not solve themselves; therefore we are encouraging parents to organize and advocate.

On Wednesday, October 24, the School Department Oversight Committee reviewed a proposed extension of the First Student contract for bus transportation for the current year and next school year. The School Board described the priorities that led to the award to First Student, including their promise to acquire a fleet of new buses with GPS. We also learned that the only other responsive bidder sought millions of dollars of extra money for the same service. Under those conditions, the School Board and the City approved the contract because these priorities were addressed at a reasonable price. The collective bargaining agreement that First Student recently entered with the Teamsters Union has a 3-year term, making any potential strikes over the next 1-1/2 years both unlikely and illegal. Finally, the School Department indicated that it would need the next year and a half to design and implement a procurement process that could lead to a different vendor with a clear “no strike” clause among other things, as it will take time to design and issue the request for proposals, and any new vendor will need additional time to acquire the buses and drivers. With that said, it is clear that the next bus contract will have to contain solid protections to prevent the harms that came from the recently concluded 11-day school bus driver strike.


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