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D.C. Bill On School Firings Advances

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By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee won an initial victory yesterday in her effort to shake up the school district's central office as the D.C. Council voted 10 to 3 to give her the power to fire nonunion workers without cause, an action supporters say could remove a major barrier to education reform.

The council also unanimously approved supplemental budget legislation providing $81 million to fill a gap in the schools' budget.

"Today is a momentous day for District of Columbia public schools," Rhee said at a news briefing after the vote on the personnel bill. "It marks truly an amazing first step that we are finally going to put the best interest of students above everything else."

Council members also called it a day in which they put the needs of the 50,000 children in the troubled school system first.

"This is not the time to be timid," said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3).

The central office, often referred to as "825" for its address on North Capitol Street, has been criticized as one of the biggest hurdles to improving public education. Teachers have complained about not being paid on time. Principals have grumbled about work orders that get lost, leaving roofs or boilers unrepaired.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's takeover of the schools this year followed a trend in which big-city mayors have seized the reins of school districts, including in New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Rhee said yesterday's vote takes the next step: getting more control over employees.

"This legislation is about creating a new culture," she said. "It is a culture of accountability."

Rhee said chancellors and superintendents throughout the country had e-mailed her and were "praying" that the legislation would pass and that their cities would follow the District's lead. "The eyes of the nation are on D.C.," Rhee said.

Although documents show that 100 to 150 employees could be fired and that 488 workers are vulnerable, Rhee said that she did not know how many workers would be dismissed and that it would take 16 to 20 months to complete the terminations.

Opponents of the legislation warned that the council's action might open a dangerous path in which employees are wrongly fired and used as scapegoats for the ills of urban public education.

If the council approves the legislation on final reading Jan. 8, the rights of all city workers, especially those who are not unionized, could be at risk, opponents said.


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