standing Westerly High School 1.jpg

Sun file photo

WESTERLY — Teachers and their supporters took to the podium Wednesday as part of the ongoing struggle to come up with contract terms that are acceptable to both the educators and the School Committee.

With several other teachers dressed in red looking on, Kristen Federico detailed her passion for teaching and how the profession has changed during the last 15 years, including the challenge of teaching during a pandemic. Despite their hard work and dedication, teachers have also had to endure public criticism, she said.

"The demands have continued to grow and somehow community support has dwindled," said Federico, who teaches at State Street Elementary School and serves as first vice president of the Westerly Teachers Association, the labor union that represents the town's public-school teachers.

The teachers have rejected two contract offers made to them by the School Committee since late August.

Benjamin Boisclair, a Westerly Middle School music teacher, did not allude directly to the contract negotiations during his remarks at the meeting, but described teaching children how to play instruments and sing both in the classroom and over the internet. Rather than "making noise," Boisclair said he always talks to his students about "making music."

"These days I can't go anywhere, either physically virtually, without hearing something about what teaching should look like," Boisclair said.

Despite the current climate of criticism and teaching during a pandemic, Boisclair said teaching "is one of the best jobs in the world." He asked those in attendance or watching the meeting for help. "We, as a community, need to stop creating noise that makes teaching more difficult," Boisclair said.

Before leaving the podium in Council Chambers at Town Hall, Boisclair grabbed a guitar and performed the song, "Don't Dream It's Over." Written by Neil Finn of the band Crowded House, the song's chorus is a call for perseverance: "Hey now, Hey now / When the world comes in / They come, they come / To build a wall between us / We know they won't win."

Brianne Phillips, who has two daughters who attend State Street Elementary School, called on the School Committee to provide the teachers with a new contract, saying the labor strife makes it harder for teachers to do their jobs. Teachers routinely work long hours and now must work to help children overcome the learning loss brought about by the pandemic and the need for distance learning and missing classroom instruction, Phillips said.

"Teachers, during these last couple of years especially, have been widely lauded as heroes. They rightly receive a lot of admiration, but if lip service is not accompanied by a respectable compensation package it's just empty praise," Phillips said.

"As a taxpayer I would gladly support a tax increase in order to fairly pay our teachers," Phillips continued.

Emmeline Phillips, one of Brianne's daughters, was allowed to speak at the table in front of the School Committee after she could barely be glimpsed over the podium. A second grader, Emmeline recounted some of her favorite moments in school, including a "camping day" when she and her classmates learned under their desks using flashlights and making smores.

"Teachers work so hard and I think they should get paid more," Emmeline said as she completed her remarks.

Emmeline's sister, Mercy, also recalled some of her favorite moments. Now in fourth grade, Mercy said her teachers help students acquire skills, offer encouragement, and provide special help when it is needed.

"The teachers at State Street School are remarkable influences," Mercy said.

A few School Committee members discussed the effort to find agreement on contract terms. Christine Cooke, a member of the School Committee, said she agreed that teachers work hard.

"This comes down to dollars and cents. You can't get blood from a stone," Cooke said.

Unless the Town Council is willing to provide greater support for the education budget, Cooke said a pay increase that is more substantial than the one turned down by the teachers union could lead to cuts in other parts of the budget, including personnel.

Diane Chiaradio Bowdy, School Committee chairwoman, said the town's tax rate is low.

"I'd rather see our taxes go up and see us get the things we need," Chiaradio Bowdy said.

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