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Will Governor McKee take over the Providence school takeover?

The Boston Globe logo The Boston Globe 4/7/2021 Dan McGowan
a person holding a microphone: Angelica Infante-Green speaks during her Elementary and Secondary Education School Commissioner interview in June 2019. © Jonathan Wiggs Angelica Infante-Green speaks during her Elementary and Secondary Education School Commissioner interview in June 2019.

If you want to know how long Governor Dan McKee has been in office, you don’t even need to ask him. In nearly every interview he does these days, he finds a way to explain that he’s on day 20 and day 30 of his new job.

It’s a surprisingly effective tactic when dealing with reporters. Every time he gets knocked off his talking points, he offers a subtle reminder that he became governor during a once-in-a-century health crisis, as if to say, “Cut me some slack.”

But as McKee gets his head around running an entire state, Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence Teachers Union President Maribeth Calabro are busy treating him like a substitute teacher who can’t quite control the warring kids in the back of the classroom.

The education leaders have spent the last few weeks launching spitballs at one another in public, including Calabro calling for an end to the state’s takeover of Providence schools. Infante-Green has been operating under playground rules too, so she has punched back by criticizing Calabro’s grammar and suggesting that teachers’ unions are “a little more logical” in New York, where she came from two years ago.

Their dispute revolves around the teachers’ union contract negotiations, with Infante-Green specifically wanting more control of the hiring and firing process. That’s a non-starter for the teachers, which tend to view changes to seniority as an attempt to bust the union.

The existing contract expired on Aug. 31, 2020, but remains in effect. They’ve reached more than 300 hours of negotiations and Providence schools Superintendent Harrison Peters said last week, “We’re just not anywhere.”

The discussions have devolved to the point where the two sides can’t sit in the same room together to discuss the agreement. Former state Supreme Court Justice Frank Flaherty is functioning as a mediator who passes notes to each side while Infante-Green and Calabro check their mentions on Twitter.

No one is looking especially good here.

Infante-Green came to Rhode Island as a truth-telling change agent who wanted to fix a school system where 12 percent of students are proficient in math and 17 percent of kids are reading at grade level. She was embraced by parents, whose children look more like her than they do the overwhelmingly white teachers’ union leadership. Now that negotiations have stalled and relationships have soured, she finds herself at risk of becoming another reformer who over-promises and under-delivers.

Calabro and other members of the union say all the right things about wanting to improve the lives of children and recruit a more diverse cohort of teachers, but they want to do it on their own terms. They’ve shown no interest in altering seniority and they’re busy doing everything they can to convince lawmakers to block an expansion of charter schools despite overwhelming public demand for additional seats.

Supporters of the takeover, like Mayor Jorge Elorza, believe the answer is simple: Rip the Band-Aid off and break the contract. He believes the law that allowed the state to take control of Providence schools gives Infante-Green the power to change anything she wants, but he concedes that the union will challenge her in court.

“The only reason we went down this road was to change the contract,” Elorza said in an interview last week. “I’ve been there, done that, and what I came to realize is you just can’t do it through the negotiation process.”

Infante-Green and Peters spent several months laying the groundwork to change the hiring process and begin the inevitable legal battle, but their plans were stalled when Governor Gina Raimondo joined President Joe Biden’s administration.

So now everyone is waiting for McKee to make the next move.

Like a lot of elected officials, he passively supported the takeover because it wasn’t his problem as lieutenant governor. He didn’t really have any problems as lieutenant governor. He’s always been known as a school reformer, but he’s also a politician. And fighting the teachers’ union a year before he runs in a Democratic primary for governor isn’t exactly part of the playbook for success.

So far, McKee has been content with sitting on the sidelines. He’s had private conversations with Infante-Green and Calabro, and he has made it clear that he opposes ending the takeover. But he’s adamant that the contract can be resolved through a mediator, as though more billable hours are the answer to anything.

It’s entirely reasonable that McKee would rather talk about COVID-19 vaccines and reopening the economy, but this fight has no end in sight. The union and Infante-Green are going to push every boundary until he steps in and brokers (or forces) a deal.

For those keeping score, Wednesday marks McKee’s 36th day as governor and the 523rd day of the state takeover of Providence schools. Every day that ticks by without a resolution is a profound waste of time.

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