PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The mayor insisted Friday that the vast majority of Providence teachers wouldn't lose their jobs even though the school district has warned them all they could, but the prospect of a mass teacher firing in New England's second-largest city sent another ripple of uncertainty through public sector unions that feel under attack in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
The school board of Rhode Island's financially troubled capital city voted Thursday to notify every one of its nearly 2,000 teachers that they were subject to being terminated at the end of the school year.
City officials said the action would give them the ability to make budget cuts. A recent audit showed Providence, which has about 175,000 residents, had nearly depleted its rainy-day fund and overspent its nearly $620 million city budget last year by more than $57 million. Next year's $308 million school budget is projected to have a gap of $40 million or more.
The termination notices do not mean that all teachers will be out of a job, just that they might. Under Rhode Island law, teachers must be notified by March 1 if they will not have a job the following academic year.
Mayor Angel Taveras, a Democrat who took office last month, has said repeatedly that city officials and the school board wanted "maximum flexibility" as they made budget decisions. His office said those decisions can't be made until they complete a review of the city's finances.
In the past, the district has routinely sent a few hundred layoff notices to teachers. Sending notices to all teachers allows officials more time to decide which of the city's 43 schools to close and how many teachers to permanently fire, city officials have said.
"An overwhelming majority will be rehired," Taveras told reporters Friday.
Still, the decision to send the letters has caused anger and uncertainty among teachers and union officials.
Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, which represents the city's teachers, called the decision shocking.
"A mass firing, announced in the middle of a school year, does not help solve a budget problem, the purported reason, but, rather, disrupts the education of all students and the entire community," she said in a statement. "Mass firings, whether in one school or an entire district, are not fiscally or educationally sound."
There are echoes in this week's move of last year's decision in nearby Central Falls, where every teacher at the high school was fired. Those firings, however, were the result of the school's poor performance, not because of money. And unlike Central Falls, where a compromise was struck and all the teachers were rehired, teachers in Providence won't have to reapply to keep their jobs.
The decision to send the notices was seen by some as another signal to public sector workers that government officials are ready to play rough to win changes to labor contracts.
Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith called the move a war on workers and a "backdoor Wisconsin."
In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker and fellow Republicans want to end nearly all bargaining with public employee unions to help balance the state budget. The proposal has sparked ongoing protests in that state and in statehouses around the country this month, with some public sector workers saying they feel under assault.
That's how teacher John Healy feels. Healy, 43, has taught in Providence public schools for 15 years and currently teaches 11th and 12th grade history at E Cubed, a small magnet school. His wife, Alyssa, 36, also teaches there.
He said he thinks this is a part of a larger move against unionized public employees.
"I started in '95. I've never let a student down in 15 years. To be treated like yesterday's trash – it kind of puts things in perspective," he said. "We're talented people. I'm going to get a job. My wife is going to get a job. But who's going to teach the kids in Providence? ... We aren't in this for the money. We've made sacrifices."
Asked Friday whether the mass layoff notices were a union-busting move, Taveras responded "absolutely not."
There is no bigger advocate for the city's schools than the mayor, said his spokeswoman, Melissa Withers. During his mayoral campaign, Taveras frequently spoke of his path from "Head Start to Harvard" through the Providence Public Schools.
But the city's financial situation is so ominous, it is time for everyone to sacrifice, she said.
"There's no question about it that times have changed," she said. "The situation we have now is unsustainable, and there's no way forward without compromise."
Patrick Laundry, who is co-president of the parent teacher organization at Vartan Gregorian Elementary School, where his son is a third-grader, said he felt conflicted. While he understands the budget crunch, he also supports the teachers.
"I would trust our school department and administrators to exhaust every effort to get us out of dire circumstances such as these," he said.
Associated Press writer Ian MacDougall contributed to this report.