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Outrage, anxiety after Providence mayor fires almost 2,000 teachers

By the CNN Wire Staff
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A war on teachers?
  • Providence's mayor sends out termination notices to all teachers in the city
  • Teachers and their union say they were caught off-guard, don't have answers
  • The mayor says the move allows for optimal flexibility in a tough budget process
  • The teacher's union head calls it an attempt to curtail collective bargaining rights

Read more about this story from CNN affiliate WPRI.

(CNN) -- The firing of every teacher in the Providence public school system has set off a wave of anxiety, anger and uncertainty in the Rhode Island city, with a union leader blasting the mayor's decision as anti-union maneuvering along the lines of what's happening in the Midwest.

Mayor Angel Tavares said in a online message Wednesday that he authorized the previous day's move to dismiss almost 2,000 teachers and staff to allow for greater flexibility once the budget process is complete. Tavares also said the final number of layoffs needed to balance a multimillion budget deficit will be determined later.

Still that explanation did little to assuage those teachers in the firing line, nor did a closed-door forum Thursday with Superintendent Tom Brady on the matter.

"The mood in the meeting today was extremely grim," one such teacher, Lori Iannucci, told CNN affiliate WPRI. "Teachers felt very negative, unappreciated. No questions were answered."

Teachers said that their union wasn't notified beforehand of the termination notices. At Thursday's meeting, they said they were given general assurances that the situation could be resolved within the next month.

Tavares insisted that he values Providence's "gifted teachers" and only felt compelled to act given a March 1 deadline to notify municipal employees about "potential changes to their employment status."

But Steve Smith, president of the city's teacher's union, said he believed the decision "makes no sense at all to teachers or the community." He accused Tavares of "making a political decision to take control and silence workers" -- a group that, he said, has consistently and continually worked with city leaders to implement reforms.

"It's shocking that in the midst of working in a collaborative environment ... the mayor says you're fired," Smith told reporters. "This sounds very much like what's going on in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, where lawmakers want to get rid of collective bargaining and remove the voice of workers."

This isn't the first time a Rhode Island community has gained headlines with a mass firing. Last year, all teachers were fired at Central Falls High School, a square-mile city just north of Providence. This issue was over low-student performance, though a deal later was reached to hire many of them back.

Insisting that "spending reductions are inevitable," Taveres cites budgetary problems as the reason for the moves, not performance. At a conference last week, Smith said that Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan singled out Providence twice for educational reform efforts, such as its teachers union being among the first to sign up for the Race to the Top initiative.

In his message, the mayor said he was "hopeful we can work together to address the fiscal challenges we face." Teachers, though, said they were left with worries about how they'd continue the school year and survive beyond that.

"How do we motivate our students to continue to value (us) as educators when our power has been taken away from us?" said Iannucci. "We'll do our best. Really, what can we do?"