When Every Conversation Is a Labor Fight in Warwick

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A familiar subject floated through Rhode Island’s news cycle again last week when Warwick schools Superintendent Philip Thornton reported to his city’s school committee that the district should do something about teacher absenteeism:

Two schools — Wyman Elementary and E.G. Robertson Elementary — have chronic absenteeism rates of 24.4 percent and 22.7 percent, respectively. Chronic teacher absenteeism is defined as missing 18 days or more of school out of a typical 180-day school year.

Two more schools — Oakland Beach Elementary and Sherman Elementary — have rates above 20 percent.

In the 2018-2019 school year, more than 11 percent of all Warwick teachers — 100 teachers — were chronically absent, Thornton said, using data from the Rhode Island Department of Education. That said, more than a third of all teachers — 312 — missed less than five percent of school.

This isn’t just some hobby horse on which the superintendent wanted to beat for some reason.  He raised the issue because teacher attendance is part of the formula that the RI Department of Education (RIDE) uses to grade the Ocean State’s schools.  Looking for some means of holding our education system accountable (without actually changing anything), the state has developed metrics, and the chief executive of an organization has strong incentive to have his metrics look good.

We’re used to these spats, around here, but it’s worth stepping back a moment and plainly noting what is going on.  The superintendent has identified a metric on which he believes the district can make improvements, and the relevant labor union, the Warwick Teachers’ Union, led by Darlene Netcoh, called out the troops and ramped up the objections, staking out ground for the fight.  Some teachers have to work until 67, she says, which drives up the sick time, as if Rhode Islanders in the private sector have anywhere near the days off that government-school teachers get.  Netcoh also attacked the numbers themselves.

Big picture, our elected and appointed officials have to be able to discuss ideas big and small, and they won’t feel as free to do that if every comment or proposal might begin the gears of the labor-unrest machine.  In the private sector, management can discuss things and make plans before a possible dispute is placed in the open.  In the public sector, only the unions have that privilege.

If we want open, transparent government, then we need some social (or legal) pressure on the labor unions to back off.