Tensions flare over staffing rules

Feb 4, 2013

Relations appear tense between the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, one of two teachers’ unions in Rhode Island, and State Education Commissioner Deborah Gist.

Gist sent a letter to Superintendents at the end of January reminding them that state regulations require staffing decisions to be based on performance, rather than the number of years a teacher has been on the job, a practice common in many schools.

In the letter, Gist says any teacher contracts negotiated after July of 2010 must incorporate performance-based personnel systems, and she warns that districts failing to embrace the rule could face loss of state funding.

The Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in Providence, Warwick and many other districts, sent out a fiery missive at the end of last week accusing Gist of overstepping her authority. The union calls it an attempt to bully district leaders into revoking collectively bargained teacher contracts.

A spokesperson from the Rhode Island Department of Education says Gist sent her letter in response to district leaders, who requested guidance on the personnel issue. RIDE says it is not aware of any districts out of compliance and has no plans to conduct a comprehensive review of district policy at this time.

In school districts, hiring, firing and teacher assignments have traditionally been governed by teacher contracts and a principal known as seniority. Teachers who are newest to the district are let go first when layoffs must be made, and teachers who have been there the longest get the first pick of open positions.

By changing the wording of the state’s Basic Education Plan, the document that sets education policy in Rhode Island, the board of education made staffing policy the subject of state regulation. Previous letters from Gist have directed district leaders to negotiate teacher contracts that allow for performance-based hiring.

Critics of seniority argue that time on the job is not necessarily an indicator of teacher quality, and they say school leaders should have the authority to hire, fire and place teachers based on who they believe is best for the job.

Teachers unions argue that seniority rules are meant to protect teachers from personal grudges or other abuses by school principals. They also point out policies like seniority are intended to promote stability in school staffing. In its response to Gist's recent letter, the union says districts should be allowed to negotiate personnel policies that are the best fit for the district.