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During the Oct. 6 WPRI/Providence Journal gubernatorial debate, candidates were asked for assurances that they would stand up to public employee unions.
Independent Lincoln Chafee, whose list of union endorsements includes the state's major teacher unions, urged voters to look at his record as a U.S. senator and as a mayor and councilman in Warwick. He specifically mentioned helping, as mayor, to resolve the city's bitter teachers dispute in the 1990s.
When his Democratic opponent, Frank Caprio, was asked the same question, his first reaction was to attack Chafee.
"When Linc Chafee says look at his record, you talk about opening up the checkbook and giving the unions a blank check. He settled a union strike by giving the teachers a 19-percent raise. So I don't think looking at the record makes anybody feel too comfortable tonight," he said.
Nineteen percent sounds like a big increase, especially in an era when many workers are taking pay cuts, so we decided to look back at what actually happened.
In September 1991, before Chafee was elected mayor, Warwick teachers went on strike when their contract expired. The action delayed school for a week. Teachers returned to the classroom after union leaders said they had reached a tentative agreement with the School Committee, but the deal fell through in a dispute over what each side had actually agreed to.
The case went to the State Labor Relations Board and was still simmering the following September, when the teachers went on strike again. Eighteen teachers were briefly sent to the ACI for refusing to obey a judge's back-to-work order.
Teachers continued to work without a contract and without a pay increase, but they refused to perform extra duties, such as advising student groups, taking students on field trips or meeting with parents outside school hours.
The dispute became so disruptive, some parents were putting houses up for sale to get out of the school system, according to Providence Journal accounts at the time.
Chafee inherited the dispute in its third year when he became mayor in 1993. At one point, he threatened to take the money set aside for teacher pay increases and use it to cut property taxes unless the union and the School Committee resolved the dispute. "I'm sure a tax decrease will spur some economic development here," he said.
In spring 1994, after talks broke down and the state mediator resigned in frustration, Chafee stepped in and cut a deal with the teachers, essentially bypassing the School Committee.
Under the agreement, backed by eight of the nine members of the Democrat-controlled City Council, base pay for a top-step teacher went from $39,762 during the 1990-1991 school year to $49,371 for 1996-'97, the final year of the pact. That's a 24.2-percent hike. The deal also included an extra 2.5 percent that teachers who were working during the 1992-'93 school year are entitled to receive when they retire or resign, a bonus that continues to be paid as teachers leave.
So Caprio's 19-percent claim actually understates the total pay increase the teachers received. (The Chafee campaign has asserted the overall increase was 19.4 percent, the figure that had been reported at the time of the settlement.)
But Caprio leaves out an important bit of information: the agreement covered six years, running through August 1997.
We asked the Caprio campaign if the candidate thought the six-year time span was relevant. "I think what's relevant is that the raise was given," said spokesman Nick Hemond.
But we think it's crucial. After all, we would hope that if Caprio, as Rhode Island's state treasurer, was promised a rate of return of 20 percent, he would want to know if the 20 percent was over one year, or 20.
In the Warwick case, the compounded cost of the salary increases was the same as if the School Committee had awarded 3.67 percent raises during each of the six years of the settlement.
And there's another question of context.
Annual raises such as those may seem high in this economic climate, but the 1990s was a different era.
At the time Chafee reached the deal, the cost of living as measured by the U.S. Consumer Price Index had increased by 23.6 percent during the previous six years.
And according to data from the Rhode Island affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the average teacher salary in the state increased by 3.7 percent for the 1993-'94 school year, with 14 school systems giving out raises of 5 percent or higher.
To reach a ruling, we focused on three key points:
Caprio understated the teachers' overall pay increase and incorrectly said the settlement came during a strike. But his intended message -- that Chafee was overly generous to the teachers -- was clear.
He ignored the economic context of the era -- and the turmoil in the city's schools -- when the deal was reached.
And he neglected to mention that the teachers' agreement covered six years, which we consider a significant omission.
On balance, we find the statement Half True.
Debate, WPRI.com, "Watch the gubernatorial debate," Oct. 6, 2010
Providence Journal, "Judge jails 18 Warwick teachers," Sept. 12, 1992 Page A-1
Providence Journal, "Teachers, board get an ultimatum," March 3, 1994, West Bay edition, Page D-1
Providence Journal, "Warwick, teachers negotiate settlement," May 2, 1994, Page A-1
Providence Journal, "School Committee ad attacks Chafee," Aug. 10, 1994, West Bay edition, Page B-1
Email, Teacher Salary Schedules:Sept. 1988-Aug. 31, 1997, Warwick School Department, received Oct. 13, 2010
Report, "Income, Poverty, and Health Coverage in the United States: 2009," Census,gov, issued September 2010, accessed Oct. 8, 2010
Interview, Nick Hemond, spokesman, Caprio for Governor campaign, Oct. 12, 2010
Interview and email, Mike Trainor, spokesman, Chafee for Governor campaign, Oct. 12, 2010
National Educational Association of Rhode Island, "Basic Salary 1993-1994," accessed Oct. 13, 2010
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