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D.C. Bill On School Firings Advances

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.

"Have you undermined the merit system for all city departments?" Nathan A. Saunders, general vice president of the Washington Teachers' Union, asked in an interview. "Whenever someone comes in to take over a department or city agency, you know the first thing they are going to ask for? The same rights given to the chancellor."

Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said workers have been terminated in the past in the hopes of turning around agencies, to no avail. He said the school system needs to be restructured, which would not necessarily mean firing workers. "I cannot support throwing civil service out the window," he said.

Mendelson, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) dissented. They also cast the only affirmative votes on an alternative bill, penned by the unions and introduced by Thomas, that would have limited the types of employees who could be fired and would have given workers the chance to be trained for other jobs in the system.

Their objections, however, did not sway the other council members during two hours of debate.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) recalled his tenure as director of human services for the city in the 1990s, describing how personnel rules made it difficult to terminate ineffective workers. "There are few things more debilitating than to follow a terminating process that is protracted to begin with, only to have your action overturned seemingly arbitrarily," he said.

He tweaked the original bill submitted by Fenty (D) to require that employees receive job descriptions, timely evaluations and proper notice that they will be fired.

Rhee said she welcomed the changes, adding that her staff is taking some of the actions outlined in Gray's amendments. Rhee has begun employee performance evaluations in the central office. Employees and managers had to complete written evaluations by Friday and must meet with supervisors by this Friday.

At the news briefing, Fenty thanked the council members, specifically Gray, for giving the legislation initial approval. He said that the council had to tackle the obstinate nature of the central office and that there has been "pushback."

"This is not an easy piece of legislation to pass," he said.

The council's approval of the supplemental $81 million to help close the school system's budget gap will also provide money to close 23 schools, as Rhee has proposed.

Last night, about 100 parents and teachers packed the cafeteria at Barnard Elementary School in Northwest Washington to hear proposals to upgrade instruction at schools across Ward 4.

Although school system leaders discussed plans to introduce a high-tech campus, new school configurations with pre-kindergarten to eighth grade, and more music and art programs, speakers zeroed in on the proposed closures, including those of Clark and Rudolph elementary schools.

Responding to a comment by Rhee that she will consider public feedback before making final decisions in January, Clark parent Joy Parker said: "Why are you asking these questions? It sounds like you're going to do this anyway."

Staff writer Theola Labb¿ contributed to this report.

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