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Schools chief, teachers agree to resume talks

CF teacher supporters rally before regents meeting

WEST WARWICK, R.I. -- About 300 people, many of them wearing red shirts in support of Central Falls High School teachers, rallied in front of West Warwick High School on Thursday afternoon, just before the state Board of Regents for Elementary and Secondary Education was scheduled to meet.

The union supporters rallied at 4:30 p.m. The meeting was to begin at 5 p.m. in the high school auditorium.Looks like the union blinked.

Meanwhile, it looks like the union blinked.

By Jennifer D. Jordan

A week after the mass firings at Central Falls High School, Supt. Frances Gallo accepted an olive branch extended by the teachers union and said Wednesday evening she is willing to restart talks with the union.

This turn of events could save the jobs of 93 teachers, support staff and administrators at the cityâs only high school.

"I am thrilled," Gallo said in an interview. "I think this really gives so much hope to the situation, to our students, to our current teachers. It matters so much."

Late Tuesday, Central Falls Teachers Union president Jane Sessums made the first move in a news release that said the teachers were willing to embrace a set of reforms that were very similar to changes Gallo initially proposed.

"My heart skipped a beat," Gallo said after reading Sessumsâ proposal. "I thought, 'They are basically saying they want what we want for the first time, with the kind of assurances I need.' This brings the union back with us, in the conversation about meaningful reform. It's where they should be."

Less than 24 hours later, Gallo opened the door with a news release of her own, saying she was excited by the prospect of reaching agreement with the teachers.

Sessums learned of Gallo's offer moments after she got off a plane from Washington, D.C., where she had been talking about the firings with the Rhode Island congressional delegation.

"We look forward to getting back to the table," Sessums said. "I think all parties know it's in the best interest of kids if we are all at the table, discussing good programs.â Education Commissioner Deborah A. Gist, whose order to improve the struggling school sparked the mass firings, said she was encouraged by the rapprochement between the two sides.

"Our focus in everything is how to ensure the children in Central Falls receive an excellent education," Gist said, "and that is always going to be improved when all the adults are working cooperatively together. So I am really pleased the teachers union has reached out and that Superintendent Gallo will continue working with them on developing the [improvement] plan."

The firings on Feb. 23 have brought intense media scrutiny and comment from the highest levels, including President Obama and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said the move, while a last resort, was in the best interest of students. National union leaders-- from the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, to the executive council of the AFL-CIO -- quickly condemned the firings, saying it was unfair to blame teachers for the school's poor results.

Gallo recommended the firings to the school Board of Trustees after talks with union leaders broke down a few weeks ago. The two sides could not agree on what it would take to transform the high school -- one of four reform models that Gist and federal officials had instructed the Central Falls school district to take.

Money was a sticking point. Gallo said she could only afford to pay the teachers for some of the additional duties she expected. Union leaders said they wanted teachers to be paid for more of the extra work and at a higher rate than Gallo offered.

Gallo said the stalemate forced her to select her second choice, the turnaround model, which calls for the termination of the entire faculty, with no more than 50 percent rehired in the fall.

On Feb. 23, the Board of Trustees and Gist both approved the turnaround model for Central Falls High School.

Sessums said Wednesday that discussions about money would not derail future talks with Gallo.

"I don't think money will be a factor," Sessums said. "I think it will come up in discussions, but I've always been hopeful that as long as we could get back to the table -- we can work it out."

One thing is clear. Gallo has 120 business days to come up with a detailed plan for radically changing the way Central Falls serves its students. At the table with her will be representatives from the state Department of Education, the University of Rhode Island, which has a partnership with the high school, members of the Board of Trustees and, as of Wednesday, the teachers union.

Whether the district goes with the turnaround or transformation model, much of the planning will be similar, Gallo says, including a longer school day, extra support for students, improved curriculum and higher standards for teachers.

If Gall'âs team and the union agree to terms, Gallo says she will rescind the termination notices. But she has until the end of June to do so.

— Jennifer D. Jordan
Providence Journal


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