Cranston teachers outraged over Good Friday controversy

apple on desk schoolBy Kim Kalunian, WPRO News 

The Cranston Teachers’ Alliance says it’s “reckless” that the Cranston School Department is going to keep parents waiting until early Friday morning to notify them if there will be school that day.

The Alliance is the union that that represents Cranston teachers, teacher’s assistants, technical assistants and bus aids. Lizbeth Larkin, the Alliance’s president, said if she was a parent, she would be “outraged.”

The School Department, meanwhile, said they are waiting until midnight on April 1 to see how many teachers request the day off for Good Friday, and won’t let parents know until 6:15 Friday morning.

Cranston Superintendent Dr. Judith Lundsten told WPRO News on Wednesday afternoon that 207 teachers and 45 teacher assistants had requested Friday off. As of Thursday afternoon, that number had grown slightly to 212 teachers, 44 teachers assistants and one bus aide.

Lundsten said it’s not about reaching a certain number of teachers before calling off schools, it’s about determining if certain schools will be lacking large chunks of staff, and looking at how many other teachers and staff members will call out sick or take personal days. Lundsten said on a typical Monday or Friday, about 10 percent of the workforce calls out — that’s roughly 100 or 120 teachers out of the more than 960.

Lundsten said they are looking at several options, including closing some schools and not others, bringing in substitutes, and using other personnel.

But Larkin doesn’t agree with the decision to wait until Friday morning to make the call.

“They are being reckless to wait until a 6:15 robo-call on Friday to let the parents know about this,” said Larkin. “Ms. Lundsten has called out schools before even a snowflake dropped if there was a blizzard coming. This is a blizzard, but it’s another type of blizzard.”

Growing Good Friday frustration

This year marks the first in at least 25 years that Cranston schools have had class on religious holidays like Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday.

Larkin said the down-to-the-wire nature of the situation was born out of their protocol for requesting time off – she said originally, the teachers would have had until Thursday night to tell the department they would be taking Good Friday off.

But Larkin said teachers started sending in requests to use one of their two religious leave days for Good Friday in early February. Larkin said those teachers were denied and told to provide documentation.

After that, other teachers sent in the requests for the day off with “proof” like notes from priests, church calendars and bulletins.

“They were still denied,” Larkin said.

Larkin said she met with the Cranston School Committee and was asked to gauge how many teachers and staff wanted to take the day off. When the numbers began to grow, Larkin eventually took the matter to court. A judge sided with teachers, saying that anyone who submitted a form letter to the schools would be granted the day off without reprimand or punishment. The deadline for them to submit that letter is April 1 at midnight.

According to a press release issued by the School Department, the agreement in Superior Court allows teachers to take Good Friday off with pay as a “religious observation day,” but individual employees could be forced to reimburse the district a day’s worth of pay if the court finds that for some reason they were not legally entitled to the day off with pay.  The case has been continued to later this month.

Lundsten said they will look next week at the school calendar and reinstating days off for holy days. Lundsten said she will present several scenarios to the School Committee, who will in turn consider the calendar and present it to the public the following week for consideration.

Who’s to blame?

“The Cranston School Committee bargained in good faith over an extended period of time last year to negotiate a contract that lifted teacher assistants, bus aides and behavioral technical assistants’ salaries,” said Janice Ruggieri, chair of the Cranston School Committee in a statement. “Part of those good faith negotiations included lifting their hourly rate in return for conceding certain holidays – including Good Friday. We are extremely disappointed that the Union leadership would not agree to a solution to this issue without disrupting the school year further. Their position today is completely contrary to our negotiations of last year.”

Larkin says the idea that the teachers negotiated to work on Good Friday and other holidays for an increase in pay is “absolutely false.” She said the union does not set the calendar in Cranston, as it does in some other communities.

“We don’t negotiate religious holidays in the teachers’ contracts,” she said. “We are salaried, we don’t get paid for holidays. We get paid for the days we work.”

She said the teachers did not get a raise this year, though her other union members — the teachers’ assistants, bus aids and technical assistants’ — did.

Larkin said she believes the school committee removed Good Friday from the calendar after they made the decision to remove Jewish holidays as well to “even things out.”

“They almost insinuated that they didn’t believe that many people were religious,” said Larkin. “No one has the right to determine people’s faith. That’s between them and their god.”

The blame game 

Larkin said the school committee and school department are trying to turn the community against the teachers. Lundsten contests that.

“I absolutely love our teachers,” Lundsten said. “We’ve got great teachers and I would never do that to our professional staff.”

She said there are hundreds of teachers who want to come in Friday and work with the kids.

“I am not trying to play a blame game on everyone,” she said. “This is a very frustrating situation for our teachers, our students and our families.”