Mayor’s Handling of Teachers’ Contract Dispute Central in Race

By Joanna Richardson — October 26, 1994 6 min read
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Warwick, R.I.

Not long ago, residents of this bustling Rhode Island city had a dismal view of their school system’s future.

Three teachers’ strikes, numerous legal skirmishes between school and union leaders, and an asbestos crisis--all over the past three years--had badly tarnished the district’s once impeccable reputation.

But this fall, the schools appear to be emerging from their slump, and some locals say the credit goes to City Hall.

Mayor Lincoln Chafee closed a deal last month ending a bitter contract dispute between the elected school committee and the teachers--some of whom were jailed during one of the battle’s lowest points.

Now, Mr. Chafee is banking on the city’s sense of relief to win him a second term in office.

In recent years, mayors in many U.S. cities have made improving schools a priority. (See Education Week, Oct. 26, 1988.)

For example, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani of New York has been exerting his influence over the district’s spending practices since he took office in January.

Mr. Chafee, the first Republican mayor of Warwick in 32 years, has starred in recent campaign advertisements that proclaim: “Peace Is Restored to Warwick Schools.”

And in public appearances, the Mayor--a former blacksmith who is the son of U.S. Sen. John H. Chafee--often describes the deal that settled the teacher-contract dispute as his most significant accomplishment in office.

His Democratic opponent, Michael Brophy, says the Mayor’s intervention was calculated--and does not guarantee that similar troubles will not again seize the schools.

A lawyer who is well-regarded in his party and who lost to Mr. Chafee by fewer than 400 votes in the 1992 election, Mr. Brophy said he aims to show voters that the Mayor’s handling of the situation is a perfect illustration of why he should not win another term.

On the Way Down

Most Warwick residents remember the fall of 1991 as the beginning of the district’s “roller-coaster ride,” said Mary Pendergast, the president of the 1,000-member Warwick Teachers’ Union.

Since negotiations between the school committee and union first collapsed at that time, the system has reeled from one crisis to the next, prompting state labor officials, the courts, and Gov. Bruce Sundlun to intervene at various points. Warwick also earned a local newspaper’s title of “school system from hell.”

The disagreements over class size, layoffs, and special school programs in the contract had evolved into a battle of wills between the union and the committee, which spent much of their time in litigation.

In fall 1991 and again in fall 1992, the 12,500-student system closed three times as teachers walked out over the failure to get a new contract.

As the negotiations continued to falter over the following year, many teachers--who were temporarily working under the terms of their 1988-91 contract--refused to perform any duties outside the classroom, said Ms. Pendergast, among the teachers jailed.

When school officials thought things could not get any worse, they discovered this year that many schools would have to be closed and cleared of asbestos-contaminated materials, Superintendent Henry Tarlian said.

For the city, “the schools and education became a very central issue,” Ms. Pendergast said. “People were asking, ‘What is happening to our schools?”’

The events “devastated the educational community, there’s no doubt about that,” Mr. Tarlian added. “I’m not sure we ever recover from something like this.”

Taking a Toll

Early on, local politicians generally steered clear of the district’s troubles.

Charles Donovan, who was mayor before Mr. Chafee won the post in 1992, often criticized the teachers for demanding too much, but he played only a minor role in the dispute.

Observers said city leaders feared that their involvement would be viewed as an invasion of the school committee’s territory.

But Ms. Pendergast and others said that at some point politicians here began to see that the schools’ problems were taking a toll not just on students, parents, and teachers, but on the city itself.

Warwick, a series of villages and suburbs strung together around the state’s busy T.F. Green Airport, has for many years drawn urban expatriates from Providence, its neighbor to the north and the state’s capital.

Lured by the promise of good schools and employment in manufacturing and retailing, many middle-class families have settled here since the post-World War II boom, making Warwick, with a population of 85,000, the second-largest city in Rhode Island.

But when the labor dispute here continued to fester, the city could no longer rest on the strong reputation of its schools.

Some of the district’s top teachers left, and it became harder for the schools to attract new candidates.

Ms. Pendergast and others said home sales and construction were down, which they read as a sign that the city’s status had slipped. Others, however, said the real-estate situation was a result of Warwick’s overdevelopment.

Whatever the reason, Mayor Chafee said, he decided that something would have to be done.

“My parents moved here because of the quality of the schools,” Mr. Chafee, 41, said. Like his opponent, Mr. Chafee attended the public schools here and has been a longtime resident. “That’s what young families look for, [and] there just wasn’t any stability” anymore, he said.

Striking a Deal

The 100-year-old City Hall building is in old Apponaug village, the closest thing Warwick has to a downtown.

Mr. Chafee spent a few hours at his city office last week before preparing for an evening debate organized by local high school students. In an interview, the Mayor said he got involved in the contract dispute about a year ago.

Mr. Chafee said he attended bargaining sessions for a while but decided to come up with his own plan when the district’s last negotiator quit in frustration. Eventually, he said, he bypassed the committee altogether and last spring offered to give raises to the teachers, who had gone without pay increases during the dispute.

The school committee was “miffed” by the Mayor’s actions, said Superintendent Tarlian, and the city council--which has a Democratic majority--seesawed over the plan.

Mr. Brophy, 45, who had begun his campaign for mayor, insisted that conditions should be attached to such an agreement.

If the council was going to hand over an additional $1.5 million for the plan, he said, the schools should return any savings gleaned from teacher retirements to the city and undergo conflict resolution with the union.

The conditions, however, were finally rejected, and the Mayor pulled off the plan with the council’s narrow approval.

Mr. Chafee said his opponent was out to “obstruct” his efforts in an attempt to get an edge in the mayoral race.

Mr. Brophy countered that the Mayor scuttled the city’s chance to guarantee that the fighting was over for good.

“If he calls it obstruction, I think he better look it up in the dictionary,” said Mr. Brophy, who served 14 years on the school committee and city council. “The end result we could have reached was permanent labor peace.”

‘Buying’ the Election?

During the debate at a junior high school, Mr. Chafee frequently brings up the contract resolution and accuses his opponent of “dishonest” campaign tactics.

Although some here agreed with that assessment, several residents said they believed the Mayor “gave in” to the union too easily--and too late.

Mayor Chafee “tried to buy himself an election by settling the dispute,” a parent who supports Mr. Brophy said.

But some teachers and school officials said the Mayor’s intervention gave him a much-needed boost: He had sometimes been accused of being too removed from the action in Warwick.

“At one time, it seemed that people were ready to write him off as a one-time mayor,” Mr. Tarlian said. “But I’m not sure that perception is still out there.”

The race Nov. 8 is expected to be close. Mr. Brophy said that recent polls showed him five to six points ahead, while Mr. Chafee’s aides claimed a 10-point lead last week. Two independents, Timothy Rossano and Kevin Eisemann, are also running.

In the last election, Mr. Brophy and Mr. Chafee competed in a three-way race with then-Mayor Donovan, who ran as an independent after Mr. Brophy took the Democratic nomination. The split in the party put Mr. Chafee--who had run unsuccessfully in 1990--on top by a slim margin.

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 1994 edition of Education Week as Mayor’s Handling of Teachers’ Contract Dispute Central in Race


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