WOONSOCKET — After collecting national honors for her role as a Woonsocket High School science teacher, you wouldn't think Claire Laquerre would be worried about whether she might still have her job next year.
But Laquerre, a 28-year teaching veteran who rehabbed her classroom at the high school into a state-of-the-art biotechnology lab, received a layoff notice from the School Committee along with all the rest of the school department's teachers two weeks ago. Laquerre, who received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Teaching Science in 2009, now doesn't know what the future holds for her career.
“It's a crushing feeling,” Laquerre said of her layoff as American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten, arrived at the school Thursday to show support for local teachers just before the dismissal of students.
“I still try to come to work and give my best but it does affect you,” Laquerre admitted. “It affects you and it affects the students,” she said. “They wonder if you are going to be back next year and they will be able to take your class,” she said.
For her own part, Laquerre said it is still not clear whether the School Committee would rehire teachers according to seniority or under another plan if the city were to slip into state-controlled receivership as was debated by the City Council Wednesday night in Harris Hall.
Under the latter scenario veteran teachers might be left by the wayside for lower-paid new teachers as a course to the highest possible savings. Mayor Leo T. Fontaine has also asked all city employees, including the school department's 500 some odd teachers to take a 10-percent pay cut in the current fiscal year to help the city cover a projected $10 million school budget deficit over the past two years.
The uncertainty of the Woonsocket School Department's future has Laquerre and many of her peers wondering what their next step should be.
“I don't want to leave because I chose to work in Woonsocket
when I became a teacher. I graduated from Woonsocket High School and I knew what Woonsocket students were going through and wanted to give something back to my community,” she said.
But Laquerre also feels that local teachers have done their part in trying to help the city with its budget problems while agreeing to no pay raises over the past five years and accepting significant changes in their health care insurance to the city's benefit.
To add a 10-percent pay cut on top of those agreed upon concessions might be too much to ask of local teachers, she said.
“I want to stay in Woonsocket, but with a 10-percent reduction in pay, I don't know if I can afford to stay,” she said.
Weingarten, who was joined at the press conference by local AFT leaders and educators and state union representatives, suggested that Rhode Island seems to be taking advantage of a downturn in the economy to back off financial support for education just as some other states have done.
The national union official pointed to her recent visits to Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami devastated the country, and other nations hit by the world's economic recession where she found a different commitment to education despite the same economic challenges.
The countries Weingarten visited all outperform the United States in education and also have not allowed the economic downturn to impact their students, she said.
“Every single one of them have made sure that even in economic downturns kids do not get hurt.” Weingarten said. “And they don't pretend that kids and teachers have different interests. They don't try to divide the people who every single day give their heart and souls for children from the children themselves,” she said.
Countries such as Japan, Singapore, China, Norway and Canada, haven't cut school funding the way Rhode Island has, she suggested, and haven't put other issues before their schools.
“They haven't said there should be a race to the bottom so that the tax cuts that were given by the former governor could stay intact. This is not what countries who actually believe that education is important do,” she said.
Weingarten said part of the reason for her visit was to highlight the work that Woonsocket's Superintendent of Schools Giovanna Donoyan and Woonsocket Teachers Guild President Jeff Partington have been doing to “work together as much as they can, even in a bad budget, to make sure that kids get a decent education.”
The local educators are doing what their peers in Pawtucket and Providence have been doing to cope with the impact of the economic downturn on their districts, and that cooperative work should gain the attention of state governmental leaders, according to Weingarten.
“I am up here today, yes in a district that has just given pinks to every single one of its teachers, what message does that send to children and parents in this community when the state can't come in and say that our children are more important than anything else,” she said.
“What message does it send when a (teachers) local has taken wage freeze after wage freeze, when a district has tried to go from a budget of $75 million to $59 million and still has to do all the new things we have to do to help make sure that kids can complete in a world economy,” she said.
Weingarten described the state as shutting its door to Woonsocket and chided the Governor's Office and the General Assembly to do more for local schools.
“We are here today to say to the governor, to the legislature, if you say that kids are important you actually have to do something to show that kids are important,” Weingarten said.
The former 11th grade social studies teacher said her students in Brooklyn once taught her that “actions speak louder than words,” and offered that lesson to state officials as well.
“If you think the future of Rhode Island is important then you need to help make sure that kids get a decent education. It's not a race to the bottom,” she said.
Rhode Island public employees such as Woonsocket's teachers have already made concessions on pay and benefits to help their districts but now the state must help, she argued.
“If we really care about kids, we need to have the funding for kids like everyone in the world of nations do,” she said. “Do we care about our kids, if we do we will find the funding,” she said.
George Nee, Rhode Island president of the AFL-CIO, also voiced support for the city's teachers during the gathering and pointed to their acceptance of no pay raises in five years as an indication of their sacrifices to help the local school department.
“This is not a spending issue this is a revenue issue, and people have been talking about spending, spending, spending,” Nee said. “We have heard what happens when the spending decreases and that is why we are today. We have to call upon our state leaders to stop the rhetoric that our property taxes are too high and that is what is driving people out of Rhode Island. “Our problem is is that we have a disjointed tax system and we have to start look at equality and fairness so we can provide the opportunity to these school systems and the employees who provide the educational opportunities to be able to turn this into a world class education system in Woonsocket and in our state,” he said.
Nee argued that the state needs to start looking at its taxation system and looking to “taxing people who have income and that are wealthy,” and to “stop this reliance on the property tax and fund this system way it should be funded...”
“The time to do that is now so that Woonsocket does not become a situation that spreads to the rest of our community. They've made their fair share of sacrifices,” Nee said.
Woonsocket Teacher Guild President Jeff Partington, who organized the event, also welcomed Woonsocket Superintendent of Schools Giovanna Donoyan to the podium while acknowledging their ongoing work to cope with the department's funding cuts and recent layoff action.
Donoyan pointed to the Teachers Guild and the Woonsocket School Department's “long history of working together to do what is in the best interest of all students in Woonsocket,” as helping in the current crisis.
“The financial crisis that we are in right now makes us work together in order to move forward with uninterrupted educational services for all of our students,” she said.
Donoyan said the school's department projected $10-million deficit was “of the greatest concern to all of us,” but also explained how it has be long in coming due a structural deficiency in funding both at the local and state levels. In fact, she said the school department had operated on a budget of $75 million a dozen years ago, and yet now has been trying to operate on local and state funding totaling just $59 million even as the department's student needs continue to escalate. “
The challenge of operating a school system under such circumstances has left Donoyan, who still considers herself a teacher “first and foremost,” feeling like she “stepped into an enormous mess,” as it's leader, she said.
“The one thing is really clear to me, is that it is because of the dedicated teachers and the paraprofessionals and staff at each one of our schools that we are ready to teach our students each day,” she said.
“I am forever grateful to the paraprofessionals and to the teachers who continue to step up to plate ready to take on more of the burden than they rightful should. It is because of that that our school department keeps functioning to the letter of the law,” she said.
Donoyan said the solution to Woonsocket's school funding problems must come from the state and that she would “stand next to” the members of the AFT “as they demand that governor take an active interest in our school department.”
“We need funding and we need it now,” she said. “And I stand next to the Woonsocket Teachers Guild as they demand a fair funding formula which none of us should be begging for, but it should be offered because it is the right thing to do,” she said.
Partington said the Weingarten's visit would help call attention to the plight of local teachers and support staff.
Local teachers have been left demoralized by the system-wide layoffs and many, like Laquerre, are unsure of their futures with the district, he said.
“It is a positive step for the membership to have someone from the National AFT to come here to Woonsocket offer them their support,” Partington said.
As for Mayor Leo T. Fontaine's request for even greater concessions from the teachers, Partington said its too soon to say what will come from that request.
“We are always willing to talk, but I have no comment at this time,” Partington said.