With a crowd of angry teachers looking on, the School Committee voted Wednesday night to send layoff notices to 700 school department employees.
Despite the vote, most of those unionized workers — and possibly all — will likely keep their jobs. School Committee members said they took the action because state law requires them to send layoff notices by March 1. With no firm information about finances, they have no way of knowing if they'll have to trim the staff before the next school year starts in September.
"We have an abundance of wonderful, valuable, dedicated teachers, and I hope that all will be recalled," Superintendent Giovanna Donoyan said before the vote. "This action is out of caution. I do not wish to break your contract."
Committee members John Donlon and Eleanor Nadeau voted against sending the notices. "If this was to lay off 200 or 300, I could support it," Donlon said. "But not all. After they receive these notices, are teachers really going to give 100 percent for the rest of the year?"
"There's a hidden agenda," Nadeau added. In a brief interview after the meeting, she offered no insight into what that might mean. "How would I know?" she said. "It's hidden."
The vote came as the school department struggles to put an end to annual budget shortfalls. It ended last year $2.7 million in the red, and another shortfall is expected this year. At this point, no one is predicting how large it will be.
As a result of the school department deficits, two bond rating agencies have reduced the city's credit rating. Many residents are fearful Woonsocket could end up the next Rhode Island city in state receivership, and that a hike in the property tax rate could be coming soon.
The pink slips are also going to teaching assistants, custodians and clerks, but teachers are leading the protests. More than 100 attended Wednesday's meeting. Many of them donned purple T-shirts as a show of solidarity, and carried signs that bore the logo of the American Federation of Teachers.
Some members of the Woonsocket Teachers Guild have said they fear the School Committee is actually using the mass layoff to get rid of senior teachers, who are paid significantly more than those just starting their careers. Under that scenario, the committee would require teachers to reapply for their jobs, and base rehiring on salary.
Union president Jeff Partington echoed those sentiments during Wednesday's meeting. He told the School Committee to "respect seniority" when teachers are recalled, and he described the mass layoff as "ill-considered and poorly planned."
Avoiding the word "taxes," Partington insisted the city raise funds to pay school department salaries. "It's a revenue problem, not a cost problem," he said. "The well has run dry."
School Committee Chairwoman Anita McGuire Forcier agreed. "You're correct," she said. "The urban districts need additional funds. Unfortunately, as a school committee we cannot generate revenue."
The meeting drew a crowd of about 200 people, including several members of the City Council. "This isn't something I wanted to see happen," said Dan Gendron, the council's vice chairman, after the session ended. "But the School Committee was put in an awkward position by the March 1 deadline, which was pushed through years ago by the teachers' union."