Providence begins school year amid tension

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – With teachers in work-to-rule mode, bus drivers threatening to strike and growing concern about student absenteeism rates, Providence officials welcomed the district’s 24,000 students back to school Tuesday.

During a morning visit to Mary Fogarty Elementary School, Mayor Jorge Elorza and Superintendent Chris Maher said they were optimistic new union contracts can be reached with the city’s teachers and between the private vendor that oversees city bus services and its drivers.

“I have no doubt that if we keep this dispute between adults, as it should be, we are going to find some resolution and hopefully it will be soon,” Elorza said, referring to the teachers’ contract. Providence teachers went the entire 2017-18 school year working on an expired pact, and voted last week to work-to-rule until a new deal is reached.

Work-to-rule means teachers will follow the exact language of their contract, but will refuse to perform any duties outside of their agreement. That could mean refusing to come to school early or stay after the bell rings.

Teamsters Local 251, which represents the city’s 200 bus drivers, voted last month to authorize a strike against First Student, Inc., the private company that oversees buses in Providence. The union wants drivers added to their pension system, while the company wants to continue with a 401(k) plan. It’s unclear if the union will actually begin to strike.

On absenteeism, Elorza and Maher said the district is working to reduce the number of days students are missing each year. During the 2016-17 school year, 37.6% of Providence students were considered chronically absent, meaning they missed at least 18 days of school

“The research is growing in this field and showing that if your child misses two days a month, which doesn’t seem like a lot to many parents, then that is going to have an impact on their ability to go to college long term,” Maher said.

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