Portsmouth Teachers Set the Record Straight
Joseph Cassady, president of NEA-Portsmouth, responds to recent statements about teacher contract negotiations in the following letter to the editor.
Editor's Note: The following letter, submitted by Joseph Cassady, is posted below verbatim. A public forum on the teacher contacts will be held tonight at 7 p.m. at Portsmouth High School.
Dear Portsmouth Community,
Much has been made of the contract situation regarding the Portsmouth School Committee and the Teachers of Portsmouth over the past week. Our School Committee has even gone so far as to present their position in absence of us. Realizing that a stance can be pretty convincing without rebuttal, we felt that it was important to let you know that our disagreements with their position are, in fact, real and not arbitrary. If it appeared that there was no logical counterpoint to their position it is because we were given no avenue of redress—as intended.
In our longer letter, which is available here (and at right), we will address the following topics as a counter to what was presented in their biased view:
Seniority: A most misunderstood concept and one that needs to be explained so as to understand how absurd the School Committee’s rhetoric has become. For everyone that makes their position on teachers being irremovable, that is certainly not the case. Teachers are at the mercy of administration for their first three years. After that, they achieve tenure and are entitled to due process. To suggest that teachers hold the power at this point is ludicrous. If administration is doing their job, there is very little the union can do to protect a teacher. We guard the process, not the teacher. The process is there to protect the individual from personal agendas and grudges that may have nothing to do with teaching. We would no sooner condemn the rules protecting teachers than we would the Bill of Rights. If seniority is eliminated, then good teachers are susceptible to the whims or political agendas of non-educators and could mean that anyone is at risk--from a truly ineffective teacher to a “teacher of the year.” By the way, the last two "teachers of the year" have resigned this school year.
Funding: There has been much discussion regarding funding without consideration that the town chose to underfund the schools. How disingenuous is it to complain about lack of funds when it was a conscious choice to underfund the schools. One of the most frustrating of comments, “there is just no money,” became even more absurd when the audit, which was delayed for three months (with multiple ultimatums to resolve or else), came out with more than a million dollars in undesignated funding.
State Support: Most of the reasoning for not meeting the request of the teachers was the change in funding formulas at the state level and an emphasis on language changes with Commissioner Gist as the cause. Two issues that address this are a clear transition in the leadership for education at the state level and a lack of language support in the BEP (Basic Education Program) which has been hijacked by our administration and contorted to fit their narrow purview. There is no reason to believe that what is widely regarded as a horrible funding formula will survive and there is no defense of the local interpretation of the BEP in the face of reality. To not meet current contractual obligations for fear of what might be is inexcusable. Imagine trying to tell the people you owe money to that you cannot because of what you might owe next year.
Benefits: Despite the misrepresentation that teachers have not moved on medical costs, from the first meeting, teachers agreed to increase our co-share and were actively seeking alternative plans. The teachers even agreed in principal to an HSA plan that was suggested by the School Committee only to have it withdrawn when we suggested we share the financial benefits of said plan. In addition, after that plan was rejected, we proposed a three year plan where we agreed to move to 20%, but that has not been announced. Instead they choose to focus on their own plan, suggesting that only municipalities have these type of plans and that we need to move into the future. We are a municipality. We have tried to keep our expectations in line with other communities, many of whom have the same plan, but have time and again been told that there is no room for compromise.
The Cost Difference: In what has been nearly a year, there has certainly been movement. We have moved away from contractual increases and agreed to take no increases for the fourth in five years. It is interesting that a group that has been so maligned in public is given no credit for taking next to nothing for half a decade. Why is this? Because the town of Portsmouth has lost sight of the need to finance their educational system. We have become accustomed to a top-flight system and forgotten that underfunding it will cost us much more in the long run. The teachers of Portsmouth are not the enemy. Making them into the enemy will only cause more of our most capable educators to seek communities that appreciate them for what they provide—the best chance for your children’s futures. Education is the great equalizer. It is the only thing that we offer to everyone--regardless of mitigating factors. To undermine that because we have forgotten the most important factor in that process is to fail our kids...before they enter the classroom.
In Conclusion: PCC-like behavior (or Tea Party) has shredded this community. They have so valued tax decreases that they have devalued everything else. Our schools are the backbone of our community. To suggest that anything else takes precedence is to forget how much we depend on our next generation. They are the future. We will depend on them and in return we have an obligation to them. Teachers are one of our most valuable assets and Portsmouth has the best. No one is honestly arguing that they are not. Instead they shroud their points in vague comments of how bad Rhode Island is or, worse yet, how unprepared our kids are. None of this stands up to scrutiny, but fear-mongering is not meant to be provable—only terrifying. Enough of the fear, time for us to stand up and take back our schools.