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Turmoil Racks Teachers Union

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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 5, 2008

The Washington Teachers' Union is facing a management crisis involving infighting between the president and vice president, an intervention by its parent organization and a recall drive targeting all the officers.

Five years after being placed in receivership by the American Federation of Teachers, after the embezzlement of millions of dollars in teachers' dues by then-President Barbara Bullock, the union is grappling with a host of internal and external pressures that threaten the viability of the organization, leaders say. Last week, at the request of the union's board, the national union dispatched a representative to work full time in the office to assess the operation and then devise and help implement a plan for fixing the problems.

Turmoil in the 4,200-member Washington union is surfacing at a pivotal time: The organization is grappling with the coming displacement of hundreds of teachers through Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's plans to close 23 schools and reorganize 27 others as well as her efforts to weaken long-standing job protections under a contract being negotiated. Meanwhile, membership has been eroding steadily, with fewer teachers needed to accommodate a rapidly shrinking enrollment.

"We're in a state of chaos. I think it's going to get worse before it gets better," said Candi Peterson, a special-education social worker at four schools who serves on the union's board of trustees, adding that she thinks the troubles will put the union at a disadvantage during the contract talks.

"I welcome the support of the AFT," she said. "They will help us emerge as a stronger union."

The union's self-governance was restored in 2005, after the election of George Parker as president and Nathan Saunders as general vice president, both of whom ran on a platform to introduce financial and management reforms aimed at restoring confidence.

But tensions between the two, which have been simmering for months, came to a head last month when Saunders filed suit against Parker. The suit asserts that Parker violated Saunders's free speech rights by introducing a policy forbidding anyone other than Parker from speaking on behalf of the union. Parker also exhibited poor leadership, which led to management and financial problems, Saunders alleges. Parker denies the allegations.

The dispute between Parker and Saunders, who were reelected last year, centers on philosophical differences over the union's approach to dealing with the school administration. Parker supports a "collaborative" approach with Rhee aimed at giving teachers a voice in decisions, while Saunders favors confrontational tactics to protest policies deemed anti-teacher.

Parker said the union's problems stem from members who are unwilling to face the new reality of the D.C. education landscape: The school system no longer has a monopoly on public school students, with public charter schools luring thousands of students every year. To save teaching jobs, the union will need to become more proactive in improving the schools rather than serving as an obstacle to reform, he said.

"We have lost 1,500 members in 10 years, all because of charter schools. Our very survival is dependent on having students remain in [traditional] public schools," Parker said. "If we don't get on the ball in terms of improving our schools, the charters will have the majority of our students."

Rhee is a big fan of Parker's.

"I believe that George Parker is one of the most progressive and bold union leaders in this country," Rhee said. "Anytime you have someone who is that much of a reformer and is going to be part of the transformation of this district, you're going to get a lot of push back. I think it's important for teachers and the community to rally around this guy who is trying to break the mold."


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