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SOUTH KINGSTOWN â€“ At 10 Sunday morning three untenured special education teachers found out their jobs had been terminated. Two days later on Tuesday night, National Education Association â€“ South Kingstown filled the West Kingston Elementary School auditorium to defend them.
Wearing their trademark bulls-eye t-shirts and holding bright pink signs denouncing bullying, the union showing took the thunder away from what was originally planned as a school committee workshop session on the stateâ€™s common core standards.
Two Curtis Corner Middle School special education teachers Kerry Hall and Francesca Shiels and one Broad Rock Middle School resource teacher Paula Rekos, sat stoically in the front row before the school committee members, who on the recommendation made in executive session by Superintendent Dr. Kristen Stringfellow unanimously decided to not allow the three teachers to come back.
Hall, a third year teacher who was approaching tenure and Shiels, a two year teacher who has been working in the district since college nine and half years ago, said they were â€śmortified and confusedâ€ť when they lost their jobs and felt targeted. Rekos, a first year half time teacher, was just hired on Aug. 26. Rekos did not want to comment.
â€śWe strongly made our case Sunday. We got no response until they decided to terminate us,â€ť Shiels said.
When asked why the school department terminated the three teachers, Stringfellow said, â€śIâ€™m not at liberty to discuss confidential personnel matter.â€ť
She said the school committee took three actions in public: the Feb. 14 decision to not renew 46 teacher contracts, a decision to not renew three retired teachers who came back to work and the Feb. 26 decision to terminate Hall, Rekos and Shiels.
The issue that has rallied NEA-SK teachers to the forefront once more is a decision they argue that deferred away from the districtâ€™s human capital policy adopted by the school committee last June. The policy states that â€śAt all times, the district maintains its right not to renew non-tenured teachers based upon a good-faith assessment by administration that better teachers are available.â€ť
Yet, the union does not see where teacher assessments came into play in the school committeeâ€™s decision. According to NEA-SK President Christine Heid, Hall and Shiels were only evaluated one time in their second years. Hall was evaluated Jan. 9 using the new RIDE model, but she still has not received the results of that evaluation. RIDE law stipulates a teacher should receive results back in 24 hours or three days at most.
According to RIDE policy, John Leidecker, NEARI deputy director and former NEA-SK uniserve said teachers must show an improvement in studentsâ€™ scores and demonstrate participation in student development, which he said all three teachers have done.
â€śAll teachers have asked for is did [the school committee] do a good faith assessment?â€ť Leidecker said. â€śDid they look at the evaluations, the letters of recommendations from parents? Those are all glowing. They didnâ€™t look at student scores, because they donâ€™t have them yet.â€ť
â€śIn the past, at its core we could depend on fair treatment. This situation has made us question that,â€ť Heid said. â€śThere is no shred of documentation. Teachers are fearful, worried about their jobs and feel bullied. How can they do the best work at their job? I canâ€™t think of too many jobs that are more important than working with students.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t want bad teachers in South Kingstown, but these are excellent teachers. Theyâ€™re not marginal. Theyâ€™re excellent in every way,â€ť Heid added.
The conflict follows a tumultuous year between the school department and the union. Last June, NEA-SK agreed to a salary freeze, a 20 percent health insurance co-pay and $755,000 in economic concessions in the three year collective bargaining agreement that began June 1, 2011.
The agreement came after the two sides clashed for months over whether the school committee could enforce new RIDE policies, the Basic Education Plan, the new evaluation system and human capital policy without negotiating with the union. When the agreement was reached in early August, both sides stepped away from the ledge and did not pursue court action.
Despite this, two weeks later, the union cast a no confidence vote against Stringfellow, blaming her for severing the lines of communication and causing the district to slip backwards.
Tuesday nightâ€™s meeting was dĂ©jĂ -vu as teachers remembered last yearâ€™s troubles.
â€śI feel what is happening in this district is bullying. I think a lot will agree with me. Weâ€™re supposed to report to a safe person if we donâ€™t feel safe. Who are we supposed to go to if we donâ€™t feel safe and we canâ€™t trust you,â€ť Kristie Serets, an ITA teacher said.
â€śWeâ€™re at a loss why this recommendation was made to you. We all thought in South Kingstown, our school committee wouldnâ€™t support this unless the superintendent provided clear evidence,â€ť said Michelle Laurent, the new Vice President of NEA-SK. â€śThere has been nothing but positive written documentation from parents, students and administrators alike. This is not how we do business in South Kingstown.â€ť
Laurent asked the three teachers to be placed on the budgetary layoff list and reconsidered along with the 46 other teachers who were issued pink slips two weeks ago. According to state law, school committees have to notify teachers by March if there is a potential they will not return in the fall.
While the school committee continued on with their work session, NEA-SK met in the West Kingston Elementary School library, where they cheered the three teachers who sat before the school committee.
â€śThis is the first step. Itâ€™s going to be told around town that the district has taken action without giving reason,â€ť said Jay Walsh, assistant executive director/UniServe for NEA-SK. â€śWe will continue to support our colleagues. Not just these three, but the next three and the three after that.â€ť
With five school committee members up for re-election in November, union members are growing suspicious over whether the school committee makes their own decisions or follow what the superintendent tells them.
â€śThe lawyer [Daniel Kinder] is controlling the superintendent and the superintendent is advising the school committee and the school committee is doing what the superintendent says. Who is running South Kingstown schools?â€ť Heid asked.
â€śThe lawyer told the school committee that they have to do what the superintendent recommended,â€ť Leidecker alleged. â€śThey have the authority. They donâ€™t have to listen to the superintendent.â€ť
â€śWe donâ€™t have this problem in any other district. This attorney [Daniel Kinder] takes the scorch earth approach. No other attorney seems to be giving this advice,â€ť Leidecker said.
Kinder, attorney for the school department, served as legal counsel for the East Providence School Committee during the contentious contract negotiations in 2008, where the school committee voted to take back raises given the previous year to deal with a deficit running in the millions.
Heid urged her members to speak again at the next school committee on Tuesday, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m. at the South Kingstown High School library.