Rhee's Plans Are Likely To Pass, Lawmakers Say

By Nikita Stewart and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The D.C. Council will probably approve two bills today that would give Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee the authority to fire nonunion central office employees and the funds to carry out the proposed closings of 23 public schools, several lawmakers said.

Both bills, requested by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), have drawn protests from different fronts and have been complicated by a budget deficit facing the school system. About $81 million of the $183 million supplemental appropriations bill would go to the schools.

Although the budget legislation would make the funds available that Rhee needs to close the schools, some council members are still pushing for a say in which schools will stay or go. For example, council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) has proposed saving Shaw Junior High School. "There are 140 schools, and we probably only need 100," he said.

Last night, 5-year-old Robert Hackett led a small protest march of parents and students to keep open Stevens Elementary School in Northwest. Rhee's plan calls for the school to be merged into nearby Francis Junior High School, where she outlined the merger to parents.

Robert, eight other students and 17 parents chanted, "Keep Stevens open," as they trekked the five blocks in wind and cold to Francis.

Robert's father, Bernard Hackett, said he did not like the idea of sending his son to a school with older children. "I want him to go to a junior high, but not before he's ready," he said.

Rhee faced heated criticism at the meeting. "I would appreciate if we could communicate respectfully," she told a parent after he derided the prospect of sending his child, a kindergartner at Stevens, to the junior high.

She told the audience that a reconfigured school can be successful and that she is trying to act "in the kids' best interests."

The Washington Teachers' Union and other unions representing school employees oppose the personnel bill, which would reclassify workers so they can be terminated without cause. About 100 to 150 nonunion employees could be affected, and the labor groups fear that the terminations could be just the beginning. Rhee's next target could be teachers, principals or others, they say.

The unions have proposed that potential firings be limited to employees classified as management and that those workers be allowed to retrain for other jobs within the system.

The unions have advertised their proposal as an alternative in a 60-second radio advertisement called "Hijacked" and using the O'Jays' "Back Stabbers" as background music.

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said he will put the union recommendations in a bill that he plans to offer today as a substitute to Fenty's proposal. Under the school takeover approved this year, the school system is part of city government and should adhere to the same personnel rules that apply to other departments, Thomas said. "We don't need three or four different personnel policies," he said. "Act fair across the government."

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