D.C. Schools Chief Fires 98 Workers
Largest System Dismissal in a Decade Is Part of Pledge to Improve Efficiency

By V. Dion Haynes and Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 8, 2008

Ninety-eight D.C. school system employees were fired yesterday as part of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's effort to establish a "culture of accountability" by sweeping out unproductive and unneeded workers at the central office.

The terminations were the first mass firings in about a decade, and Rhee indicated they might not be the last.

The move came about two months after the D.C. Council gave her unprecedented authority to reclassify about 390 of the more than 700 nonunion central office workers under "at-will" status, which allowed her to fire them without cause.

Starting about 1 p.m., senior staff members called the employees into private offices one by one and handed each a letter saying that he or she will be terminated as of March 22.

One senior manager, a five-year veteran of the school system, said that Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson stepped into his office about 1 p.m. and told him he was dismissed.

She said, " 'I have some bad news -- you're being terminated,' and handed me a letter. I asked her what was the reason for the termination, and all she said was, the personnel act allows it," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

The man said he asked whether he could notify his staff but was told he could not. He said he was told to "get my personal stuff and leave," he added. "I was out of the office in 20 minutes."

The fired workers will be on paid administrative leave until March 22, the letter says. They were told to collect their belongings and were escorted out of the headquarters, at 825 North Capitol St. NE, by police officers and security guards.

Rhee's action was the first mass dismissal since superintendents Arlene Ackerman and Paul L. Vance pared the central office and maintenance workers during the budget crises of the late 1990s and early this decade.

"I have been very clear about the reason for the personnel legislation," Rhee said at the John A. Wilson Building. "This is not a one-shot deal. We wanted to create a more streamlined central office."

Asked whether there will be more cuts, she said, "You'll have to wait and see."

Mafara Hobson, Rhee's spokeswoman, said the dismissals were based partly on employee performance and on Rhee's plans to make the central office more efficient.

The central office, the nerve center for the 49,600-student D.C. system, provides administrative and financial support for the 140 schools.

The system is one of the lowest-performing in the nation, a problem that has been blamed largely on a broken central office. It has been criticized for many deficiencies, including failures to provide textbooks and supplies for classrooms, to hire teachers on time, to provide students accurate class schedules and transcripts, and to quickly dispatch maintenance workers.

As of yesterday's firings, 116 school system employees have departed as a result of the new personnel rules. Eighteen employees resigned several weeks ago after refusing to sign papers agreeing to the "at-will" classification. The 98 workers who agreed to the terms will not be able to appeal, school officials said.

The terminations affected employees at all levels of the central office.

"This kind of thing is always difficult, but it allows us to operate more efficiently and effectively, and it allows us to push more dollars down to the schools," Rhee said.

As one of the fired workers left the system's headquarters, he said that "a lot of those persons who should have been dismissed are still up there."

He and other fired employees who were contacted refused to provide their names or requested anonymity, fearing that their remaining pay would be jeopardized.

The fired worker said he thought that the central office had become a "toxic" environment since Rhee announced the job action late last year.

Some council members said they were dismayed by the dismissals. Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he was upset that Rhee told him about the firings after the fact. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) angered some members last year when they failed to brief them about 23 schools scheduled to close before the list appeared in the media.

"I think it is essential that the council be informed," Gray said. "There are people who are going to ask us what we think."

Gray said Rhee visited him in his office about 90 minutes after he heard about the firings. He said she told him that the letters had to be reviewed and legal questions answered, leaving little time to inform the council.

"Her assertion was that this wasn't deliberate, and she apologized for it. It is where it is at this point," he said.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that he had not been informed about the firings but that the council was aware that Rhee would take action. "Basically, we gave her the authority to do it, and she exercised her authority," he said.

Some of the fired workers said they thought they had been treated unfairly since Rhee arrived. They said that she regarded all central office workers as though they were incompetent, even if she didn't know them, and that when she walked past them, she would not say hello or look them in the face.

One employee, who asked not to be identified because he had not received his final pay, said he was told yesterday to go to Rhee's conference room on the ninth floor. That's where Lisa Ruda, her chief of staff, terminated him.

"My being let go was not because of poor work," said the man, who had worked for the system for six years. "They had an agenda, and they wanted to come after us."

He said that after the personnel legislation was passed, he and other central office workers were given a job review. He said he thinks he was marked down in some areas to justify the firing. "I'd been there six years and never had an evaluation until they walked in the door," the man said. "How can you have folks who just walked in the door evaluate you?"

Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) said several employees had complained to him about the evaluation process. "I just hope that the process was fair to the people we let go," he said. "We're still talking about people's lives."

Cherita Whiting, an activist and parent of a D.C. public school student, told the council during hearings on the personnel legislation that Rhee should be able to get rid of nonperforming employees at the central office. But Whiting said she favored giving the workers a probationary period to improve performance, which, she said, Rhee did not do.

Whiting said she thinks many of those let go were probably good workers unduly blamed for a dysfunctional administration.

"I hope the paperwork will substantiate each and every one of these firings," she said. "Otherwise, they're going to have lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit over it."

Staff writers Robert E. Pierre and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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