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School committee considering 'at will' status for principals

December 19, 2010

WOONSOCKET -- Local principals haven't received a pay increase for the past five years, but during that time they could count on past individual contractual agreements for a bit of job security.
Now, it appears the school department's ongoing fiscal troubles may be putting the local school leaders at risk.
Members of the school committee this week debated whether the school department's nine principals should serve "at will" and be open to layoffs at any time.
The proposal came out of the school committee's contract review subcommittee as an option for future budget savings that could help offset the expiration of $3 million worth of one-time federal grants the department counted on to balance this year's school budget.
School Committeewoman Eleanor Nadeau, who worked on the proposal with fellow contract subcommittee member Linda Majewski, said the school department's pending budget problems leave the committee little choice but to consider such a change.
Principals, she noted, are not union employees and as a result could be included in a list of possible budget adjustments.
"We are facing big problems and we need wiggle room," she said. While most of the department's principals are doing a good job for the department, according to Nadeau, the "at will" status would allow School Superintendent Robert J. Gerardi Jr. to make changes if that action is viewed as necessary.
One of those changes could be the combination of duties for two elementary schools such as Gov. Pothier and Citizens, under a single principal post. The consolidation would allow one of the existing $90,000 principal posts to be eliminated as was done last year with the shift of Woonsocket Area Career and Technical Director Lynne Bedard to the vacant High School Principal post. A vice principal is currently heading the Career Center while working under Bedard with the high school's vice principals.
The smaller Coleman and Fifth Avenue schools are currently headed by Principal Ron Celio in another consolidation move.
Bernon Heights Principal George Nasuti, a 28-year-veteran of the school department, urged the panel to reconsider such a plan, however, noting the potential for negative morale and loss of experienced local administrators.
By taking such a step simply because it can, he said, the school committee would be sending its administrators a message: "we don't value you.”
Without out some assurance of a contract, the administrators would lose the job security they have held in the past, Nasuti maintained. The distraction of worrying whether they would have a job in the coming year would also impact a principal's ability to focus on their school's needs, he maintained. "You won't get the same level of effort from people who are looking over their shoulder," he said.
Nasuti suggested that the contract committee instead consider awarding principals the job security of a two to three year contract agreement similar to that enjoyed by other administrators working for the school department.
School Committeewoman Anita McGuire-Forcier said she did not support making the principals at will employees and Committeewoman Vimala Phongsavanh, joined her in suggesting that the move be reconsidered.
School Committee Chairman Marc A. Dubois said he also was against a change in status for local principals and sought support for tabling the proposal.
"We have very dedicated hard working principals and we rely on what they provide our students," he said. Dubois said he has received many positive comments about local principals from parents and also noted that they have gone longer without a pay raise than any other school department employee.
While a pay raise may not be possible under the current fiscal climate, Dubois said he would support providing principals with a sense of job security.
Nadeau and Majewski said they would be willing to take another look at the proposal and voted with Dubois to table the move for "at will" job status. Forcier and Phongsavanh voted against the tabling in light of their objections to the change.

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