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."
Thomas lobbied his colleagues at an administrative meeting yesterday and one-on-one with council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).
Although some council members agree with Thomas's reasoning, the council is likely to approve Fenty's request with some minor tweaks offered by Gray, lawmakers said.
"This is one of those where there is no middle ground," Gray said. The chairman hopes his amendments will address Thomas's concerns about consistent personnel rules.
Rhee needs the power to fire the employees so she can carry out her plans, Gray said.
Joslyn Williams, president of the Washington Metropolitan Council of the AFL-CIO, said in a statement that he was disappointed with Gray's proposed changes. "Stripped of its superficial exclusions and ambiguity, Chairman Gray's proposal echoes the draconian reform bill championed by Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee."
Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), a former school board member who favors the bill, said the school system has for years had a militaristic setup with teachers and principals viewing the central office as their bosses. With Rhee's vision, the "central office needs to be more like customer service," he said. "It's a different model. It doesn't mean the central office is incompetent."
But some council members were sympathetic to the unions. "Firing people is not a panacea for improving . . . our schools," Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said. "I've seen it over and over again. You make it easy to fire people, and you fire good people."
At a hearing last month on the bill, however, several parents described their experiences with central office employees who bungled work orders and seemed uninterested in helping students.
Since that hearing, Rhee announced the potential closing of 23 schools. Unions have tried to unite with parents because both are upset that they had little or no input in developing that list.
Nathan A. Saunders, general vice president of the teachers union, walked with the Stevens protesters last night.
"Reform will be done with us, not to us," he said. "It's not true reform until it involves the stakeholders."
Staff writer Paul Schwartzman contributed to this report.