Providence, R.I. – An estimated 1,500 peopled blocked the street in front of city hall waving signs and chanting "negotiate, not terminate!"
Teachers from Providence, Cranston and Central Falls filled the crowd along with members of the firefighters' union. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called the termination of Providence's entire teaching force "insane."
"Why would they want to destabilize the school district," Weingarten said to thunderous applause. "Why would they want to hurt kids, set back reforms and dehumanize every single teacher in this proud district?"
Providence officials are calling for the closure of up to half a dozen schools and cuts to many city departments. They describe the deficit as larger than anything the city has seen for decades.
"It's unprecedented," says Mayor Angel Taveras, who revealed this week that the city's combined deficit may reach as high as $180 million over a two-year period.
Taveras says he felt he had to terminate - not layoff - Providence teachers because that is the only way to make sure that teachers the city cannot afford will be completely removed from the payroll.
"With a layoff for various reasons you can be responsible for paying teachers who are not teaching in a classroom," Taveras explained, adding, "if they go into the substitute pool, you're paying them their full pay and benefits and that's costing an enormous amount of money. I can't allow the taxpayers to be on the hook for teachers who are not teaching."
Union leaders point out that dismissals mean the city can ignore seniority rights as it restaffs classrooms, and that has left many longtime teachers feeling fearful about their future.
"You wonder how you're gonna pay your bills, you wonder what's going to happen to the children," said art teacher A.J. Morse, a 16-year veteran of the Providence Public Schools. Morse believes that firing teachers sends the wrong message to students.
"Our children need stability more than anything and this is really going to shake them up," Morse said. "Its going to take away the respect they have for the teachers, so its going to make our job harder."
Teachers in Providence already have challenging jobs. The city serves a large number of low income students and is home to some of the lowest performing schools in the state. State officials are expected to identify more failing schools in the coming weeks.
The firings have an added sting for Providence teachers, because their union has been working with district leaders on several controversial reforms, including turnaround plans for four failing schools. As he dropped his nephew off at an Elementary School on the city's Southside, Emmanuel Rivas worried that the controversy would only make things worse.
"Firing teachers isn't going to help," Rivas said. "Myself I got five nephews that are currently staying with me, so what's going to happen to them? Are they fired for good? Are they going to go on strike?"
Some parents see room for optimism. Christy Chase, who has two children in Providence schools, believes this is an opportunity to speed up reforms that have been needed for a long time.
"This is an unfortunate way to get there, but something drastic does need to be done," Chase said. "I think this will force the issue of how you evaluate and hire teachers."
Providence city officials say their goal is to cut the budget while doing the best they can for city schoolchildren, and they say they will start talking about rescinding some of the teacher terminations later this month.
Teachers' union leaders insist they want to be part of the solution, but they say its hard to do that when you are protesting on the steps on city hall instead of meeting with the decision-makers inside.