Straight Up Conversation: RI Chief Deb Gist on the Central Falls Deal

(This post also appears on Rick Hess Straight Up.)

Best quote of the day yesterday was Mass Insight CEO Justin Cohen telling me his take on the Central Falls deal. “There are deals and there are good deals,” he said. “This is a good deal.” I think that’s just right. The point of tough management is not to collect scalps but to change the tenor of the deals that get struck.

And that’s what happened when the Central Falls High teachers endorsed their new deal yesterday. The final accord makes it clear that not only was there no compromise, but Central Falls Superintendent Fran Gallo, who started the negotiation asking for six big concessions, wound up pocketing more than a dozen. If the Central Falls teachers play poker like they negotiate, they might be advised to just mail their Visa card to Vegas and call it a day.

The success of the Central Falls deal rested significantly on Rhode Island super-chief Deb Gist’s aggressive moves last fall, in which she interpreted the basic education program (enacted last summer by the state’s Board of Regents) to mean that seniority would no longer be a factor in school staffing. That decision critically strengthened Gallo’s hand, by putting real teeth in her threat to fire teachers without their having recourse to privileged placements or bumping rights.

Yesterday, Gist took a little time to answer a few questions about what to make of the Central Falls deal.

Rick Hess: The deal turns critically on the teacher evaluation component that’ll be introduced next year (with unsatisfactory teachers targeted for termination). How will we know whether the evaluation is sufficiently tough, or whether it becomes a fig leaf for backing away from more painful measures?

Deborah Gist: There are a couple of ways that we’ll know. One is that the administration has the complete authority to put the evaluation into place. The agreement says the evaluation will be put into place solely by the management. And the Board of Regents passed regulations that define what the evaluations have to look like in this state. The guidelines are good and strong, and everything that we’re doing is based on those.

RH: Okay, but suppose that, at this time next year, we see that just five or six of the school’s 93 teachers are removed. Would observers be right to be skeptical that the process was toothless?

DG: It’s not about removing any particular percentage of teachers. It’s hard to know what the proper percentage would look like. But I strongly encourage people to be skeptical. We should be skeptical. I want people to take a hard look at us, and I’m going to do the same with the district and with my staff. But it’s not about the percentage of teachers we remove. It’s about the quality of the evaluation and about performance. I expect there will be turnover, but how much there is remains to be seen.

RH: Why in the world would the teachers have ever opposed some of Gallo’s demands, like the request that they eat lunch with students once a week? Why didn’t some teachers publicly break with the union and say, “Hey, I’m happy to do that?”

DG: I can’t speak to that. But I have had teachers approach me and say that they’re already doing these things that Gallo wanted. So I’d say to them, “Then, what’s the problem?”

RH: What do you say to critics who might ask how you can leave the faculty intact for another year at a school that you’ve identified as profoundly low-performing?

DG: We don’t take this decision lightly. We take it very seriously. But there are some great teachers at the high school and, because teacher evaluation is so poor around the country and in the state, we don’t have good evidence as to who should stay and who should not. This deal gives us the opportunity to make those decisions in a more informed way and gives folks the opportunity to be a part of the reform movement. There are examples of groups of teachers coming together to turn their schools around in various communities, and there’s no reason to assume it can’t happen here. We’re going to give teachers that chance. Our expectations are high. We’ll be watching carefully. If they’re not ready to deliver results, we’ll act upon that rapidly.

: When I read the press release yesterday on the settlement, it was pretty mealy-mouthed. It wasn’t until I got additional information on the deal that I felt okay with it. Why such a weak press release?

DG: Because we didn’t want to get ahead of the agreement. We knew we needed to put something out to let people know the deal was happening, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate to give specifics since the teachers themselves hadn’t even seen the deal.

RH: Were you worried that the release might make the deal look like less of a reform victory than many thought it to be?

DG: That’s just not the focus. We’re concentrating on the substance. We want people to have all the facts, but we’re confident with what’s happening. Even if folks are skeptical, and I’m fine if they are, they’ll see that we mean business when things start to change in the school and these reforms are put into place. We’re more concerned with walking the walk than with talking the talk, and that’s what we’re focusing upon.

RH: Any idea what explains the union’s change of heart?

DG: I really don’t know. Maybe because they finally knew that we were serious. Something like this had not ever happened in the state before, and the only thing I can think is that perhaps the first time around they didn’t realize we really meant business.

RH: Were you surprised by the union’s shift?

DG: This has been many weeks in the making. There were times when it would look promising and then grim, and then promising, and then grim… Ultimately, I’d say I was not shocked but was pleasantly surprised.

RH: Are you concerned this might be viewed as a retreat or that other low-performing schools in the state might see this deal as setting a precedent?

: Yeah, that’s already started. We’re just dealing with it. There are rumors that this was all about Race to the Top or a deal or something else. People speculate. We expected that. All I can do is give people the facts. If they want to draw other conclusions, then we’ll just take it from there. I’m confident with what we’ve done and that’s what I have to go back to.

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