WOONSOCKET — Richard A. DiPardo's working life has come full circle. He started out in teaching during turbulent times in the early 1970s and has remained involved with the Woonsocket Teachers Guild long enough to see those difficult times crop up once again.
This time, however, DiPardo will be counting on others to work though the new challenges as he accepts 40 years as an endpoint for his working career.
“It is a decision I made with mixed emotions to be honest with you,” DiPardo said while talking about his years with the Guild at its Cumberland Street office last week.
“It's been my whole life,” DiPardo, 62, said.
DiPardo retired as a member of the high school's Social Studies department after more than 37 years in teaching 18 months ago and has continued to serve as the Guild's full-time president since that time.
While working exclusively as Guild president, DiPardo has attempted to temper the impact of reduced state aid to local schools for his membership through frequent meetings with former Superintendent of Schools Robert J. Gerardi Jr. and also spent time lobbying for increased school aid before the state Department of Education and the General Assembly.
The local budget reductions were balanced in part with contract changes accepted by the Guild that eliminated pay raises for its members over a three-year period and also revised medical coverage for additional savings in the school budget.
Unfortunately, DiPardo has also witnessed a stepped up demand for reductions in school costs statewide that has him predicting the tough times for teachers and paraprofessions may be far from over.
“In my experience there has never been a good time because the economy is always a challenge in Woonsocket but these times are the worst I've ever seen,” DiPardo said. “It is kind of like a perfect storm where everyone that has ever been opposed to us over the years is coming forward to take back things that we earned years ago,” he said.
The local school department has seen its funding reduced by about $2.5 million from past years as the state rolled back school support to help resolve its own budget difficulties. The overall budget reduction occurred despite a city increase in its support of schools. Woonsocket now pays $12.9 million of the School Department's $60 million annual budget and the state the rest.
Keeping that budget balanced to available revenues also required school officials to drop a full-day kindergarten program for a lower-cost, half-day alternative, eliminate teacher assistant posts, restructure special education services and drop the high school's innovative block schedule in lieu of a six-period day. The block schedule change was made to cut 10 teaching posts at the school.
The cutting has been so severe in reaching a balanced budget, DiPardo now believes it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the cooperative relationship that has existed with the school administration in recent years.
It is a situation that could test DiPardo's long-held belief that negotiation is the best way to resolve differences between his organization's membership and the school administration.
DiPardo, a 1969 graduate of Woonsocket High School, learned the merits of that concept while working as young Social Studies teacher in his hometown after graduating from Providence College in 1971.
He became a Guild officer and was soon embroiled in the school department's growing labor discord.
The polarization between the School Department headed by School Superintendent John Drury and the Guild reached a crisis point over the summer of 1975 when talks on a new contract broke down and the Guild's leadership gained a vote of the membership to strike in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement.
The picket lines went up just as school was to start and the school department's attorney, Richard R. Ackerman, went to court to end the job action.
DiPardo was among the six Woonsocket Teachers Guild officers called before a Superior Court judge to answer for the Guild's job action.
The “WTG 6” as they came to be known, Guild President Thomas Flood, William Marrah, Lawrence Leduc, the late Jacqueline Casey, Rose Marie Cipriano and DiPardo, all were asked whether they would order their membership back to work, DiPardo recalled.
As each of the six faced the judge individually and answered no, they were ordered to the ACI in comtempt of court. The experience was an unsettling one for people normally responsible for helping students to become good citizens in their community.
DiPardo remembers that the teachers were held at the ACI's Minimum Security unit and were kept in their cells with the exceptions of meals and a visit to the prison's Sunday night movie.
The contrast between the union members jailed for refusing to go to work and the prison's inmates with crimes ranging from robbery to murder was stark, and set several efforts in motion to end the dispute.
DiPardo's crew was jailed along with Pawtucket Teacher Union leaders who had gone out on strike at the same time. Warwick teachers also went out but benefited from a judge's decision to schedule their back to work hearing at the end of 30 days, DiPardo remembered.
Finally Gov. Phil Noel and members of the General Assembly worked out an option for the teachers and school departments to enter a binding artbritation that they would all have to accept. The WTG 6 were called in from prison and told about the option and were also instructed to accept it, DiPardo said. After six nights and seven days in prison, the Guild members were released and the arbitration began.
Today DiPardo is still proud of the stand he and the rest of the Guild's 500 members took early on in his career. “We held on strong and we were out for 17 days,” he said of the strike.
But DiPardo also believes the arbitration was a necessary step to end the crisis. “It was a face saving way to get boths sides out of a very bad place,” he said.
In retrospect, the teachers did not gain much more than they already had and the same could probably be said for the administration as well, according to DiPardo. There were two smaller strikes through the early 1980s but then no more for Woonsocket after that.
DiPardo believes the arbitration worked to end the impass of 1975 and for that reason he still supports statewide adoption of that process for education employees today, especially with the growing movement against teachers.
The fact it looms as a option to end a dispute could keep the sides serious in their talks, according to DiPardo.
“That's the only way I think you are going to be able to keep peace,” he said. And while some might think a “last best offer” arbitration benefits the union, DiPardo said an administration doing its homework can often acheive its own goals through the process. “They can probably beat us 9 times out of 10,” he said.
The future of the local Guild, however, will have to be determined by its new officers. DiPardo's longtime fellow officers, including John Boudreau, Peter Moniz, and Mark Kurtzman, are stepping aside for a new leadership team headed by Jeff Partington, a teacher at the high school.
Partington experienced a job displacement under the school department's recent budget cutting while shifting from a lost business teaching post to Social Studies and knows the road ahead may be a difficult one for the Guild. For that reason, the former banker has asked DiPardo and Kurtzman to stay around on a part-time basis for the next year to complete the transition to new Guild leadership.
“When a guy has been an institution in Woonsocket like Richard DiPardo, it is difficult to try and gain all that knowledge quickly,” Partington said of his predecessor. “I think we are in an unprecedented economic mess so I am inheriting a lot of unusual problems,” he said.
The School Department is also in the process of selecting a new Superintendent of Schools after Gerardi's departure for a post in Massachusetts and that is another unknown for the new team at this point.
“I'm hoping that my relationship with the new Superintendent is a good one so we can cooperatively workout any difficulties that arise in the best interest of the school system and the population that we serve,” Partington said.
That would be a good first step in DiPardo's playbook.
When the economic troubles arrived this time around, DiPardo said he saw negotiation as the best step forward. “I was determined that we were not going to turn into Providence or Central Falls,” he said. “That doesn't benefit anybody. “We all had a vested interest in keeping this department afloat,” he said. DiPardo, afterall, is a self-described eternal optimist and has always believed over the years that things can get better. “I couldn't go on if I didn't have hope,” he said.
For the moment, DiPardo is only considering spending more time with his wife, Barbara, a recently retired Guidance Director, and the couple's two grown children, Elizabeth and Nicholas, as his next act in life. “I have no other plans,” he said, “at least not yet.”