Providence Mayor Defends Massive Teacher Layoffs, Budget Cuts

As part of Tell Me More's focus on cities and states in economic crisis, guest host Farai Chideya explores efforts by Providence, Rhode Island to fill a $70m deficit. In a move that has angered educators and teacher unions, the city last issued termination notices to nearly two thousand teachers. Chideya speaks with Providence Mayor Angel Tavares about the decision and the city's plan to meet its budget shortfall.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Farai Chideya sitting in for Michel Martin.

We're continuing our focus on cities and states in financial crisis and how elected leaders are choosing to respond. We're still hearing a lot about Wisconsin and political fallout there as a result of Governor Scott Walker's budget repair plan.

Coming up, we'll ask three teachers from Wisconsin, Ohio and California about pay cuts, collective bargaining and pension plans.

But first, we turn our attention to the northeast where another budget crisis is looming. Last month, some 2,000 public school teachers in Providence, Rhode Island were given termination notices as part of the mayor's plan to try to help close the city's expected $70 million deficit. Mayor Angel Tavares is here with me now. Mayor, thanks for joining us.

Mr. ANGEL TAVARES (Mayor, Providence): Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: So, you describe the city's budget as in a category 5 hurricane, fiscal emergency. You yourself have taken a 10 percent pay cut. Just how bad are things in Providence?

Mr. TAVARES: Things are very difficult right now. And, certainly, when I came into office, I was expecting a deficit. We just did not expect one of the magnitude that we have. We actually have a $70 million deficit for the current fiscal year. And we still need to finish plugging $29 million of that 70 million for next year.

The deficit's projected to be $110 million on a budget of about $640 million. So it is a difficult situation. I categorized it as an emergency because I believe it is. And we have to make big changes in order to put our fiscal house in order.

CHIDEYA: So let's talk about the schools. You recently gave pink slips to all public school teachers in the city, that's over 1,900 people, letting them know that they are at the risk of losing their jobs. And that's because state law requires teachers be notified of their employment status by March 1st.

I want to play a clip of Randi Weingarten, the national president of the American Federation of Teachers. And here she is speaking earlier this month at a rally on the steps of city hall.

Ms. RANDI WEINGARTEN (National President, American Federation of Teachers): You have to work with us. That is what we do every day. We make a difference in children's lives. Negotiate with us. Work with us. Do not fire us.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

CHIDEYA: Now, Mayor Tavares, how many teachers are actually likely to be fired?

Mr. TAVARES: We are focusing on that right now. We're looking at probably around 70 teachers because we're closing four schools. It's something that we have to do. It's not something that we want to do, but it's necessary. And in terms of the termination notices, and I think you explained it very well, we had to send the notices out in order to let teachers know that their status could change at the end of the year.

And that's required by state law that we do that by March 1st. So we are focusing right now on determining which teachers. We've now identified the schools. We did that last week and we're going through the process of getting the approval to close the schools.

CHIDEYA: So these are four schools that you're talking about. And how do you respond to critics who say you're trying to solve the city's fiscal problems mainly through the schools? And that you're ganging up on schools.

Mr. TAVARES: Oh, I think that people need to realize one thing. And that is that this is going to be shared sacrifice. All of us are going to be a part of the solution. I, certainly, I took a pay cut of 10 percent. My payroll and my -of the mayor's office is being cut 10 percent. The teachers came up because of the March 1st deadline. We're negotiating with our laborers' union. We're negotiating with our police union. We're negotiating with our fire union. We've already had layoffs here, non-union personnel.

So, people who say that it's going to be solely on the back of educators, that's just rhetoric. What we will see is that everyone is going to be part of the solution. And it's going to be everyone really sacrificing.

CHIDEYA: If you're just joining us, we're continuing our focus on cities and states and how they're fairing in this economy. I'm here with Angel Tavares. He's the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. And, mayor, let's talk about unemployment. The jobless rate in Providence is 11.2 percent. That's higher than the national average, which is 8.9 percent. What are you going to do to create jobs?

Mr. TAVARES: Well, one of the things that we're doing here is we are in the process right now of searching for an economic development director who will help us coordinate all of the efforts not only in our capital city, but around our state as well, because Providence is such a big part of Rhode Island.

Second thing that we're doing is working with our universities and our hospitals to develop a knowledge district in Providence. We have new land that's opening up because we moved a highway and that's opening up about 20 acres of land. And there was a lot of interest there in terms of research and technology and we have to focus on making sure that that happens and grows.

Our universities and hospitals are our biggest employers in our state and have been growing in the past and we need to do - make sure that that happens responsibly as well.

So, we have the ability to attract business here. But I think first and foremost, I have to get the fiscal house in order to attract a business into the city of Providence. They look to see what your - what the finances are like and it's important that they see that we are on firm footing.

CHIDEYA: Now, another issue that you've talked about is immigration. You have been critical of the federal Secure Communities program. It partners with local law enforcement to help Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE, officials identify and deport undocumented immigrants and you said that you'd opt out of it if you could. Why is that?

Mr. TAVARES: Well, because if we're able to opt out of Secure Communities, we will do that. What I've also said is, we have cooperated with ICE in the past and we'll continue to do so. If someone has a warrant out for their arrest and it's an immigration warrant, we will hold that person. And we will continue to do so and cooperate.

But what I will not do is I do not want our officers serving as immigration officers. I don't think that's good for public safety. I don't think it's good for our city or for our state. I'd like to see national immigration reform, which I think is the way to respond to this.

In Secure Communities, my concern is that, really, it's going to create a lot of insecurity and that what you're going to have are people who are going to be frightened to approach the police for a variety of reasons. I want to make sure that they know that the police are here to help. We're not here to serve as immigrations officers. And so that's important to me.

CHIDEYA: In November, you became Rhode Island's first elected Latino mayor. And in the context of the issues that we're facing with immigration as a nation, do you think that there is going to be a way to push for some kind of comprehensive immigration reform in this country? What would that look like to you?

Mr. TAVARES: Well, you know, I hope that there's a way. It's unfortunate because I feel like right now on the national level there's a lot of extremists out there. And that's not helpful. I think we have to find a pathway to citizenship. I think the idea that we somehow could deport 11 million people who may be undocumented is fallacy. And we need to recognize that we should find a way for folks to be able to achieve legal status here.

I think it's important that we pass the Dream Act. That's vital, I think, overall, for our kids who are here to continue to pursue their education. They should not pay for any sins of their parents. I mean, it's not going to be easy because right now, as I said, I feel there are so many extremists on both sides and we need to work together.

CHIDEYA: Now, as far as your personal history, some articles have talked about you going from Head Start to Harvard, where you went as an undergrad. You also went to Georgetown. You've worked in the community. That sounds like a, you know, a kind of a familiar path, you know. The man in the White House shares some similarities with you. Do you think that you'll end up in Washington one day either in Congress or perhaps, you know, gunning for that big office?

Mr. TAVARES: Well, you know, one of the things is that if you would have talked to me a little bit over a year ago about being mayor of the city of Providence, I wouldn't have believed it. Things can change rapidly. And what I - what my focus really is just doing the right thing and making sure that I can leave this city stronger than I found it.

And if I do that, then good things will happen in the future. But I - that's my focus is making sure to make the difficult decisions now because in the long run, it'll be better for our city, better for our state and better for our country.

CHIDEYA: Now, when it comes to your ongoing fiscal crisis, your bond rating was downgraded, and in some cases, the state can intervene and provide assistance. The state has not for your city. Do you feel the state should?

Mr. TAVARES: No, I don't feel the state should. And, actually, we're working very cooperatively with our state and with our governor. One of the things that we did - a week after taking office, I appointed a municipal finance review panel and one of the members of that panel is the current acting auditor general of our state. And he was very involved in everything that we did and was one of the signers in terms of the report.

We have maintained very close communications with our governor, with our state senate and also the speaker of the House. And so we will continue to do that. And I think they talked about this last week, that we have taken decisive action. We have been very proactive and recognizing the extent of the problem and taking decisive action to address it. And I'm going to continue to do that, and I expect to work closely with our state in making sure it happens. But I appreciate the confidence they've shown thus far, and I hope that my actions in the future will just have that confidence grow.

CHIDEYA: Angel Tavares is the mayor of Providence, Rhode Island. He's in the third month of his first term, and he joined us from office at city hall.

Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. TAVARES: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

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