Workers, Council Question Firings

By V. Dion Haynes and Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 9, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's decision to fire 98 central office employees Friday is generating a debate among workers and questions from D.C. Council members about the fairness of the process.

According to several people who lost their jobs, the firings affected numerous departments, including business operations, food service, budget and communications. But information technology appeared to be the hardest hit, losing about 40 of its 50 employees. Former workers in that unit said Rhee has decided that the functions will be absorbed by the city's IT department.

Rhee's spokeswoman said yesterday that she could not specify the departments affected by the firings or provide information about the people who lost their jobs. She also could not determine how much money the firings would save.

The former employees said they are angry that they were let go despite years of good service. The legislation gives Rhee the right to dismiss them whether they are good or bad performers. They also said they thought the system treated them shabbily in giving them a phone number to call to get information about final pay. Some said they are seeking legal advice. The terminated workers refused to be quoted by name because they officially remain on the school system's payroll for two weeks.

"I've been contacted by a substantial number of terminated central office employees interested in exploring legal action," said Stewart Fried, a lawyer with the Washington office of Kilpatrick Stockton. Fried said he is investigating their grievances to determine whether they have a case.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he had not been contacted by any of the fired employees, but he said he was concerned about whether Rhee properly used the evaluations to determine who should be terminated. Gray said he asked Rhee for a list of the fired employees, which she declined to provide because her office is waiting until all of those employees have received their letters of termination.

The chairman said he is also going to request their evaluations. "What do the evaluations look like?" he asked. "I want to see."

Council member Yvette M. Alexander (D-Ward 7) said she needed to know which positions were cut. "Who is doing their job now? How is the job getting done?" she asked.

The dismissals were the latest step to remake the troubled school system. Rhee is in the process of closing 23 schools and reorganizing 27 others whose students consistently scored poorly on standardized tests. In her current contract negotiations, she is pushing to reward teachers whose students make significant academic gains. All of the measures are controversial, but are in keeping with the hard-driving approach Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) has taken since he gained control of the schools in June.

Rhee gained the authority to fire about 400 in January, but it took those who got the news Friday by surprise. Many expressed similar complaints against Rhee that had been raised by parents and teachers: She and her team are disregarding advice from people about what has and hasn't worked to avoid repeating mistakes.

"She never talked to anybody with tenure to figure out the logistics of her own school system," said one man who worked in the information technology department for almost 10 years.

For example, he said, Rhee held a news conference at a warehouse in the fall and derided the bureaucracy for letting computers sit in storage instead of getting them into classrooms. The man said the computers "were there because they were damaged. Repair people worked out of that building. A lot were not repairable."

Gray said Rhee painted a picture of the central office as one filled with employees who did not know their job descriptions or were not doing their jobs, leading the council to support the idea of giving her greater power. Rhee asserted "that there was a lot of incompetence at the central office, and that they were protected from being fired," he said. "The question that needs to be posed to her is whether these 98 people were the ones who were not doing their jobs effectively."

One former long-time employee agreed. The woman said she feared the dismissals would disrupt operations in the central office.

"History shows that when a lot of people are let go from that office it hinders building the infrastructure for the system because you don't have people with historical knowledge and you really need to have that," she said. "If you want new faces, that's fine. But you have to keep a balance of people that have that historical knowledge."

Staff writers David Nakamura and Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.

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