Several hundred teachers and supporters rallied Wednesday to protest firing notices sent to all the city's nearly 2,000 teachers, with union leaders calling the action illegal, immoral and "insane."
The rally on the steps of Providence City Hall included chants of "Mr. Mayor, negotiate now!" and "The teachers united will never be defeated."
Teachers in Rhode Island's financially troubled capital city were warned last week that that they could be out of a job at the end of the school year. Mayor Angel Taveras has said most teachers will not be fired, but the city was forced to make the move so it has flexibility to make cuts to balance its budget.
His office said Wednesday that Providence has a $180 million structural deficit for this year and next. The city last year overspent its nearly $620 million budget by more than $57 million.
Several speakers at the rally referred to Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker wants to end nearly all bargaining with public employee unions amid a state budget deficit. Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, called what happened in Providence "the most wrongheaded thing I have seen in a season of wrongheaded actions against American workers."
Teachers in the crowd said they were upset the city told every teacher they were subject to firing — rather than first determining how many teachers they would have to cut, then issuing them layoff notices. Firing notices, they said, are permanent.
Gilbert Allen, who has taught for Providence schools for 23 years, said he worries he'll be out of a job because he is one of just two teachers of instrumental music for elementary schools in the district, and arts are a frequent target of cuts.
"When money is an issue, those programs are going to go," he said.
His 14-year-old son, Andrew, held a sign that read "23 years to Providence. My dad has no job!"
Al Green, who teaches English at Roger Williams Middle School and has worked for the district for 17 years, said he understands the city has budget trouble, but there are many ways to reduce the budget. He said any cuts should have been done in a more thoughtful way that did not produce as much anxiety.
Taveras on Wednesday said he respects the teacher's right to rally but that "my resolve has not changed."
Providence Teacher's Union President Steve Smith said the firings are illegal because they were done without just cause, and he has filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the state Labor Relations Board. Rather than firing notices, teachers should have been given layoff notices, he said.
But the Taveras administration has argued that would continue a financial obligation to teachers who are no longer needed if the city closes schools to save money. A city spokesman said Wednesday it will recommend closing four to six of the city's 43 schools, although officials say they don't know how many teachers they will fire.
Taveras has complained that the city wouldn't have had to notify so many teachers they might be fired if not for a state law that requires such notifications by March 1, before the city's budget planning process is complete. On Wednesday, Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said she favors changing the law to allow for later notices.
"It creates tremendous anxiety for teachers," she said. "Our teachers deserve better than that."
Gist said she trusts Taveras to handle the budget crisis.
"I have every confidence in Mayor Taveras. These are unprecedented times and it makes every decision very difficult," she said, adding that she also backs teachers who wish to rally. "It's incredibly important for our teachers' voices to be heard."
Associated Press writer David Klepper contributed to this report from Providence.