Superintendent Philip Thornton watched the sick notices trickle in most of the day Thursday and into the early morning hours Friday. He alerted parents and school personnel that, if the trend continued, school may be closed. By 5:45 a.m., with 74 out of Pilgrim’s 140 teachers reporting sick, he knew what he had to do. The department would be unable to fill all the vacant classrooms with substitutes. He sent out a notice that school would be closed for the day.
Across the city at Toll Gate High School, or for that matter any other Warwick school, teachers did not report sick in such numbers. At Toll Gate eight teachers reported sick.
Under school policy, teachers reporting sick the day before or after a holiday or weekend are required to submit a doctor’s note. Those failing to do so will face disciplinary action, although when asked what that would be, Thornton deferred, saying it was a “personnel matter.”
The sick-out wasn’t a complete surprise. According to reports from the Warwick Teachers Union meeting Wednesday afternoon, such an action, along with a strike, had been discussed as a means of protesting the failure of the parties to reach an agreement. The prior contract ended in August 2015.
Thornton doesn’t see how a sick-out at Pilgrim helps reach a settlement.
“The most important thing is to have a teacher in front of the classroom,” he said. “It gains nothing. It hurts the kids.”
As for efforts to resolve the contract impasse, Thornton said the department continues to wait for the decision of Michel Ryan, who conducted interest arbitration over the past year and a half. As arbitration was conducted on aspects of a contract, the parties also engaged in mediation with attorney Vincent Ragosta acting as mediator. At the beginning of this year Mayor Scott Avedisian joined Ragosta in conducting mediation.
Based on “leanings” from the arbitrator, the school committee proposed a contract that would give teachers a 2.5 percent pay increase retroactively for the second year of no contract and raises of 3 percent for each of the following three years. The teachers would have to agree to drop all grievances. The union rejected the offer, maintaining the agreement failed to take into consideration their concerns over class sizes and special education assignments.
Thornton said he has talked with Avedisian and there would be an attempt to bring the sides together prior to the release of the interest arbitration decision.
“We all want a contract. Hours and hours have been committed to this,” he said.
Avedisian released a statement on Friday, saying that the closing of Pilgrim was “extremely disappointing and disheartening.” Avedisian reported that he had been in touch with school committee chairwoman Beth Furtado, who said that the committee was willing and ready to sit back down for another mediation session to hopefully sort out the remaining issues.
“I expect that the Teachers’ Union will also return to the table in a good faith effort to reach an agreement,” Avedisian said in his statement.
Warwick Teachers’ Union president Darlene Netcoh made it clear that the cancellation of Pilgrim was not the result of an organized effort by the union and that there was no vote taken at last week’s meeting on whether or not to engage in a district-wide strike or a sick-out. Netcoh said that many of those who called out sick at Pilgrim were likely suffering from actual illnesses and criticized the air quality and overall health environment of the school.
She said that the goal of the union remains getting back to the negotiating table and hashing out a new collective bargaining agreement once and for all and that if the school administration reached out to meet, the union would show up, too.
“That's all we want, is to be able to sit down and mediate and finish,” Netcoh said on Friday. “There's no reason we should be for three years without a contract...We deserve no less.”
Netcoh said that she hoped for a large turnout at tonight’s school committee meeting and that the newest mediation session would hopefully be scheduled as soon as possible.
As for the 24 teacher assistants working at Pilgrim, Thornton said only a couple reported sick and that the others were given the option of taking a vacation day or working elsewhere in the system.
“People coming to work, we had work for them,” he said.
(With reports from Ethan Hartley)