By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 3, 2007
Union leaders representing teachers, bus drivers, custodians, boiler plant workers, teachers' aides and other workers of the 14,000-employee D.C. public schools symbolically locked arms yesterday in a fight against legislation that would give Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee power to fire 545 central office employees.
But parents who testified at a D.C. Council hearing supported the legislation as they complained about a central office that is a bureaucratic morass.
The hearing concerned the Public Education Reform Amendment Act of 2007, an eight-page bill that would reclassify nonunion employees as "at will," giving Rhee authority to terminate them. Rhee said the employees would also be given the choice of opting out of the "at-will" status by resigning with severance pay.
Sitting side by side in the council chamber, five leaders of four unions said they opposed the bill. They said they feared that approval of the bill would lead to more bills that would give Rhee power to remove everyone from teachers to warehouse workers.
"The reform mantra of this administration is always the same, 'Give us more time, more money, more power.' This time, the council should just say no," said Geo T. Johnson, executive director of District Council 20 of the AFSCME, which represents 3,300 nonteaching employees in the District.
Rhee said she needs the authority to overhaul schools as promised when Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) took the reins of the system in June. She described a highly dysfunctional central office, where phones go unanswered and where employees give parents, teachers and administrators the runaround. She said such behavior hurts the schools' educational performance.
"We are allowing the race, socioeconomic status and Zip code in which a child is born to dictate his or her academic achievement levels and, therefore, their life chances and life outcomes. That is the greatest social injustice imaginable," she said. "I think that with this legislation, we can take the first steps to changing these outcomes."
Mary Siddall, a parent at Ross Elementary School, recalled spending five days last year trying to get lights fixed at the school. Siddall said she has already seen differences with Rhee in charge.
"We are 100 percent behind this woman. She is our only hope," she said, pointing to Rhee.
Cherita Whiting of the Ward 4 Education Council said Rhee needs the power to deal with entrenched employees at the central office. Whiting said the office "should be considered the chancellor's house, and she should be allowed to clean it."
Although only nonunion employees would be affected by the legislation, they were not among the two dozen public witnesses who testified yesterday. But the union leaders said they were speaking for them as much as for their members.
Nathan A. Saunders, general vice president of the 4,000-member Washington Teachers' Union, said he did not see anything in the legislation showing that firings at the central office would improve student achievement. In fact, he said he could see an adverse effect.
"This legislation seeks to fund buyouts for downtown administrators. Funds available for public education should be used in the local schools, which directly provide educational services for children," he said. "Music, art and school counselors in every school are a good use of funds."
The other unions represented at the hearing were Teamsters Local 639 and the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO.
In an interview, Rhee said there is $7 million in the budget to address the possible terminations. Previously the school district reported that 754 positions could be affected, but Rhee told the council that because of vacancies, the legislation actually could target 545 workers.
Most council members voiced support for the legislation, but a few said they were wary of giving Rhee too much influence.
Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said "incompetent, nonperforming workers . . . can be fired" through other means that are in place. She said she would like to take more time to look at the issue and suggested that interested parties meet to hash out a plan.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) earlier rejected a request from the Fenty administration to push the bill as emergency legislation at Tuesday's council meeting, which would give Rhee immediate authority. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) was also asked to expedite the legislation but declined after speaking to Gray.
At the hearing, Gray said he felt "disrespected" by the administration's request. Rhee said she took responsibility, citing miscommunication with her staff. She said she told aides that the bill was "urgent," which was interpreted as a request to lobby the council for emergency legislation.
Gray said the council needs time to mull over the bill.
"I'm not going to ram a piece of legislation through this council," he said. "If it takes a little longer to get it right, it takes a little longer to get it right."