RI education board renews Gist's contract

The state Board of Education voted Thursday to extend the contract of Commissioner Deborah Gist for two years amid vocal criticism from some teachers over her support for using a standardized test as a high school graduation requirement.

Gist accepted the renewal following the board's 7-3 vote during its meeting at the Community College of Rhode Island. Her annual compensation was set at $193,800, with a 2 percent raise after the first year. She will receive quarterly performance evaluations. Her contract was set to expire Friday. She had been making $190,000 a year.

Gist has come under fire from some teachers and one of the state's major teachers' unions over a new requirement under which students must be at least partially proficient in reading and math on the New England Common Assessment Program tests to graduate. Many teachers also have expressed displeasure over new teacher evaluations.

Gist was "grateful" for the contract extension, according to her spokesman Elliot Krieger, and has vowed to work with teachers on their areas of disagreement.

"She truly believes that she and the teachers share the same beliefs and commitments," he said.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan expressed support for Gist in a conference call with reporters this week, saying the state has made notable progress under her leadership.

Democratic Gov. Lincoln Chafee favored renewing Gist's contract but had not said for how long. On Thursday he said he was pleased that "we have reached an agreement."

"The Commissioner and I have enjoyed a productive and positive relationship over the past several years, and I look forwarding to continuing to work with her on behalf of Rhode Island's students," Chafee said in a statement.

Gist, a former elementary school teacher, has been Rhode Island's commissioner for elementary and secondary education since 2009.

During her tenure, the state won $125 million in federal funding in the Race to the Top program $75 million in the first round of competitive grants in 2010 for programs focusing on kindergarten through 12th grade and $50 million last year for pre-school learning.

Scores of teachers who did not want Gist's contract renewed protested before the board meeting. Following the vote, Robert Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association Rhode Island, said he isn't expecting relations between teachers and Gist to improve.

"We don't believe that the voices of teachers, parents and students were heard in this," Walsh said. "The burden of proof is on the commissioner and the board. Morale is horrible. ... She just has a different perspective on things."