They’re going to try again.
Attorney Vincent Ragosta, state-appointed mediator for the ongoing teacher contract talks, said Tuesday the Warwick Teachers Union and School Committee have agreed to meet for mediation on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 7 p.m. at Warwick City Hall. Ragosta said he was prepared to meet this Tuesday, and had offered to do that, but because of a conflicting School Committee meeting the decision was to put it off until the 18th.
Mayor Scott Avedisian confirmed that, after a hiatus of increasing tensions, the two sides would finally be back at mediation. He said in a press conference Wednesday that he was hopeful a new contract could be hammered out before findings were handed down by independent arbitrator Michael Ryan.
"Any homegrown, organic decision that we make here in this office is going to be better than someone from the outside telling us how to govern ourselves," Avedisian said. "My hope is there is no arbitration ruling before Wednesday so that we have an opportunity to try and resolve it ourselves."
Avedisian made it clear during the press conference that he is concerned about a changing "tone" that has emerged in the past week, a week in which school was closed both at Pilgrim High School last Friday and Veterans Junior High School on Wednesday due to a high number of teachers calling out sick in what is a clear message of unhappiness and frustration being sent by some teachers.
"My overall concern is a resolution of this over two-year long protracted labor issue," he said. "I’m concerned with the tone that it has taken in the last week and I’m asking for cooler heads to prevail."
Warwick Teachers' Union president Darlene Netcoh has repeatedly denied that these "sick outs" were in any way sanctioned by the union, and that the union has not once taken a motion to organize a sick out or orchestrate a strike to a vote in any of their recent meetings.
The tone that Avedisian was referring to almost certainly includes a press release sent out by Netcoh on Tuesday, which announced that the Warwick Teachers’ Union had unanimously voted for what she deemed a "rare measure" to vote "no confidence" in School Committee Chairwoman Bethany Furtado and Superintendent Philip Thornton.
Netcoh said through the release, “the unanimous vote signifies that the Warwick teachers, the professionals who are in the classrooms and are witnessing the negative educational effects of the negligence of these two individuals, have waited long enough for Furtado and Thornton to do their jobs...Because Furtado has allowed Thornton to do whatever he wants, he has, among other actions, caused a disastrous secondary school consolidation; eliminated programs, such as Reading Recovery and elementary guidance; and violated contract language that would have ensured the appropriate placement of special education students and special education teachers in classes."
The release goes on to criticize Thornton for eliminating classroom space for teachers while securing "luxurious accommodations for his administrators" in the renovated Gorton Administration Building and for spending excessive funds on legal fees and a public relations firm to "promote their agenda."
"Warwick teachers hope that their vote of ‘no confidence’ will encourage Furtado and Thornton to reverse course and act in the best interest of the students in Warwick and restore education in Warwick to the level of excellence it enjoyed before Thornton’s arrival,” the release concludes.
The release prompted a response from Furtado at the beginning of the public portion of the Oct. 10 meeting of the Warwick School Committee, a meeting that was watched over by multiple officers of the Warwick Police Department and which provided several moments that summed up the tone that Avedisian was referring to, including teachers lining the hallway to shower administrators and committee members with chants prior to the beginning of the meeting.
"I would just like to say that on behalf of myself and not on behalf of anyone else on this committee, I have attended almost all of the negotiations and/or mediation sessions over the course of the last several years, and I have always negotiated in good faith and in the best interest of this district," Furtado said.
When the audience began to boo her and yell, as happened frequently throughout last month's meeting as well, Furtado banged the gavel on the table to restore order, something she had not done last meeting.
"You will be removed," she said. "We are conducting a business meeting in public. The expectation is that you will be respectful. There will be a time for you to speak at the end of the meeting."
Although nobody was ultimately escorted out by police, the intermittent bouts of jeering and cheering continued throughout the evening, especially when Director of Secondary Education Robert Littlefield gave his report on class sizes at the secondary level. He was cut off multiple times during his report as people shouted "lies," and there own versions of his statistics, which prompted a response from Clerk Terri Medeiros.
"As an educator myself, it saddens me the arrogance that some of you portray," Medeiros said, getting promptly heckled and sarcastically laughed at by audience members. "This is a regular business meeting, we need to get things done, and I am not insulted by you, I am saddened."
At one point, Bachus accused fellow committee member Eugene Nadeau of "grandstanding" when he made a remark that, "We’re just fortunate that every teacher in the city of Warwick doesn’t call in sick all the time." Replying to the assertion, Nadeau said to Bachus, "I don't seek applause Karen."
Following all of this tumultuous activity, Avedisian was hopeful that the meeting at his office on Wednesday could provide a pacified playing field upon which meaningful negotiations can take place, especially if the negotiations are ultimately forced to come down to arbitration.
"I just want to remind people that we’re going to need to return to the table, and so if we can not have an escalation of the war of words and have cooler heads prevail, I need everyone to be willing to still come back to the table for any of those issues that are not binding," he said. "I think we need to look at bigger picture on the future of the educational system in the city and everyone being a part of whatever decision is rendered so that we can move forward."
Netcoh, too, said on Wednesday that she was happy to participate next week.
"I am looking forward to mediation resuming, which is all we’ve ever wanted," she said.
Warwick Teachers’ Union members crowded the hall at Toll Gate High School on Tuesday night, shouting chants of, “What do we want? Contract. When do we want it? Now!” at administrators and committee members as they headed into the auditorium.