PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Just three years after a national labor leader accused Providence Mayor Angel Taveras of trying to "crush unions," political analysts say the first-term Democrat's hopes of becoming governor may hinge on how much support he wins from organized labor.
Taveras, who succeeded David Cicilline as mayor in 2011, is widely expected to jump into next year's race for governor, where he's likely to square off against General Treasurer Gina Raimondo in the Democratic primary. Incumbent Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who recently became a Democrat, announced earlier this month he won't seek re-election.
With Chafee out of the race and public-sector employees still incensed about the state pension overhaul Raimondo pushed through two years ago, Taveras appears well-positioned to earn the backing of many of the state’s largest unions – particularly the teachers, who have been among Raimondo's most vocal critics and were instrumental in getting Chafee elected.
“The ball is in Mayor Taveras’s hands to go out and win the endorsement from our members,” Patrick Crowley, a lobbyist with the National Education Association’s Rhode Island chapter, told WPRI.com.
Still, teachers' union leaders acknowledge Taveras is by no means a perfect fit for them.
The mayor, a 43-year-old son of Dominican immigrants, entered office in 2011 pledging to reform a school district plagued by poor test scores and a childhood poverty rate that exceeded 37%. He devoted more than a quarter of his inaugural address to laying out a vision for education that included adding charter schools and implementing teacher evaluations, declaring “justice demands that we fix our schools and ensure their long-term success.”
Taveras also inherited a city in the throes of a growing financial crisis, which has forced him to spend the majority of his first term chipping away at a $110-million structural deficit. Most notably, he negotiated a pension settlement with police, fire and municipal employees that cut the city's shortfall by roughly $170 million and helped Providence avoid bankruptcy.
Providence school teachers were among the first to feel the impact of the city’s money woes after Taveras took office.
Less than two months after delivering his inaugural address, Taveras issued pink slips to all of Providence's nearly 2,000 teachers – a move city officials blamed on a controversial state law that requires municipalities to alert educators of potential dismissals by March 1.
Taveras – who now calls the termination notices a “mistake” – defended his decision at the time as a strictly budgetary move that gave the city maximum flexibility for hiring. But teachers excoriated the mayor for attacking the seniority system: Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, led hundreds of educators in a rally on the steps of City Hall to protest the dismissal letters.
The city ultimately rehired every teacher.
“There are Providence folks who are still upset about the mass firing, but that’s going to be a factor that people will have to consider,” Frank Flynn, who heads up the Rhode Island chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told WPRI.com. “I know the mayor has made statements that he wished he handled it differently and that’s as close as politicians get to apologizing.”
Mending fences with the union
Flynn said his 10,000-member union will likely rely heavily on input from Steve Smith, president of its Providence Teachers Union affiliate, as they begin to vet candidates in 2014. Flynn said it was too soon to name a favorite to win the endorsement in the governor’s race, but his union is one of the groups that sued the state to throw out the pension law Raimondo crafted.
Smith, a former state representative from Providence, clashed with Taveras during the early part of 2011, but their relationship appears to have improved as the two have collaborated to begin implementing reforms in some of the city’s poorest performing schools.
Following the teacher termination notices and a subsequent decision to close four public schools, the city and the union reached an agreement on a new contract that included a no-layoff clause for three years – a decision that allowed some displaced teachers to remain employed even if they didn’t have a classroom.
Providence also earned national recognition for launching a first-of-its-kind labor-management educational management organization to run three schools. The initiative allowed the city and the teachers union to work together to reform the schools rather than leaving it in the hands of an outside charter operator.
In 2012, Taveras sided with the union during his search for a new superintendent of schools, selecting Dr. Susan Lusi rather than a Philadelphia educator who oversaw that city’s charter schools. Lusi, who was named interim superintendent after her predecessor Tom Brady stepped down in 2011, was largely favored by the union as well as several school principals.
“I was new a couple of years ago and I think they’ve had a chance to work with me and see that I respect their work, I respect them and I admire what they do,” Taveras told WPRI.com. “I’m grateful for how hard they work and I wouldn’t be here but for the great public schools I had.”
Taveras the reformer
Nevertheless, Providence is still a long way from becoming the "envy of American urban education" that Taveras envisioned in his inaugural address.
Mary E. Fogarty Elementary School and Roger Williams Middle School - two schools Taveras attended on his path "from Head Start to Harvard" - rank among the worst-performing schools in Rhode Island on annual student tests.
At Fogarty Elementary, just 17% of fifth-grade students were reading proficiently last year, while 16% were proficient in math – both results the worst in Rhode Island. At Roger Williams Middle, 32% of eight-graders could read proficiently, but only 17% were proficient in math. More than a quarter of the students at each school were labeled “chronically absent” – meaning they missed at least 18 days - during the 2011-12 school year – well above the state average.
Taveras is aware of those numbers and others like them, and although he’s been careful not to place blame on teachers, he remains a proponent of some of the most controversial proposals in education reform.
Since taking office, the mayor has vetoed an attempt by the City Council to put a question on the ballot about whether the city should move to an elected school board; praised Teach for America, which hires teachers from non-education backgrounds to teach in the city for two years; and advocated on behalf of a charter school that wanted to open in Providence.
In April, Taveras delivered the keynote speech at Yale School of Management's Education Leadership Conference, weaving in mentions of his strategy to improve early-childhood reading and talking along with his support for organization like Teach for America, as well his efforts to bring the Achievement First charter management organization to Providence – two organizations that teachers unions have railed against.
“Achievement First is something that I fought very, very hard for to get permission from the state to do that,” Taveras told the crowd in New Haven. “I think Achievement First has shown tremendous success here in Connecticut and in New York and I’m looking forward to showing success as well in the city of Providence.”
Less than two months later, Taveras penned a letter to the R.I. Board of Education asking its members to reconsider a graduation requirement that ties a student's diploma to his or her performance on a standardized test. More than 80% of 12th-graders at four Providence high schools - Alvarez, Central, Hope and Mount Pleasant – must retake the NECAP test and improve their scores in order to graduate.
Taveras won praise from teachers and students for the letter, but he maintains that he still supports standardized testing; he told WPRI.com he doesn’t believe the NECAP is the right test to use for an exit exam.
Christine Lopes, executive director of the Rhode Island Campaign for Achievement Now (RI-CAN), said she thinks Taveras is making the grade when it comes to education reform. Lopes said the city still needs “much more” to be done, but that Taveras has shown promise.
“Mayor Taveras has shown strong support for a portfolio approach in Providence and has helped to expand high quality choices for parents in a variety of ways, including sponsoring the Achievement First Mayoral Academy,” Lopes told WPRI.com. “He's also been a proponent for meaningful, professional evaluations for teachers - an important piece towards improving student outcomes.”
Analyst: Taveras should win union vote
For the teachers' unions, whose importance in local politics is magnified during lower-turnout Democratic primaries, Taveras likely represents the best option in a field of potential candidates that have butted heads with organized labor in the recent past.
Raimondo has been vilified by many in organized labor for masterminding a law that froze cost-of-living-adjustments and forced all employees into a hybrid pension plan. Allan Fung, the Republican mayor of Cranston, was a lead supporter of a failed effort to bring Achievement First to his city. Moderate Party founder Ken Block is a former board member of RI-CAN, a school-reform advocacy group despised by union officials.
“Taveras is poised to pick up a lot of labor support,” Darrell West, a former Brown University professor who is now vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told WPRI.com. “Union members remain very upset over a number of things Raimondo has done so they are not likely to provide much support for her.”
In a primary that could be decided by approximately 120,000 voters, West said having labor support “matters a lot” because the unions will turn out votes and volunteers. He said union leaders believe Taveras has made much more of an effort to understand their perspective.
Taveras said turning around Providence's schools will remain his top priority – no matter what the future holds.
“I’m going to do the best that I can, I work very hard,” Taveras said. “I’ve learned from my missteps and you go on. But I think people know that I really want what’s best for our kids, what’s best for our schools.”
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