Teacher Lobbying Raises Union's Ire

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A community group that supports D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's proposed salary and bonus package for teachers has hired a small group of instructors at $1,000 a week to lobby colleagues for the plan, drawing accusations from union leaders of interference with the collective bargaining process.

A spokesman for Strong Schools DC, founded in May by half a dozen local philanthropists with a history of involvement in education issues, said five public school teachers were employed "to spread the word" about Rhee's plan. A recruiting e-mail, sent by one of the teachers, said the group was prepared to hire as many as 20 "teacher contract outreach coordinators."

But Todd Lamb, the spokesman, said the group has decided to pull back for the moment, principally because contract talks between Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union have not concluded.

"We thought this contract would actually be done by now," said Lamb, who added that the five teachers will be paid for two weeks of work.

Union leaders said that is precisely their objection -- that Strong Schools has improperly interfered with its members by promoting a salary plan that is not yet part of a tentative contract. They also expressed unhappiness with the group's Web site, which they say leaves the impression that the union is somehow affiliated with Strong Schools.

George Parker, the teachers' union president, said that members have a right to associate with any group they wish, but that hiring teachers to lobby colleagues while negotiations are ongoing is inappropriate.

"We think it's inappropriate to interfere with the union's communications with its membership about a future contract," said Parker. "That's what we're for."

The dispute illustrates the high-stakes atmosphere surrounding the contract talks and the business community's intense interest in seeing Rhee prevail in her attempt to raise the level of student achievement in the District by gaining more control over the hiring and firing of teachers.

Under Rhee's proposal, a teacher with five years' experience who chooses the so-called green track could earn as much as $101,000 in salary and bonuses by 2010. A teacher with 10 years of service could command as much as $122,500. All new D.C. teachers would enter the system under this option.

In exchange, teachers would have to relinquish tenure protections and go on probation for a year, during which time they could be fired. Criteria for judging teacher performance are still under discussion but would almost certainly include improvement in standardized test scores.

Strong Schools DC was founded by business leaders whose names figure prominently and overlap frequently in private-sector discussions about overhauling public education in the city: Katherine Bradley, president of CityBridge Foundation, a nonprofit group; Jack Davies, founder and former president of AOL International; Kristin Ehrgood and Vadim Nikitine, spouses and co-founders of Sapientis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public education in Puerto Rico; former AOL executive George Vradenburg; and Raul Fernandez, a venture capitalist and part owner of the Washington Capitals.

Union leaders say the group's ties to Rhee lead them to suspect that she had a role in orchestrating the lobbying campaign.

Ehrgood, like several other supporters of Strong Schools, is a veteran of Teach for America, where Rhee began her teaching career. Ehrgood is also co-founder of DC School Reform Now, another group supportive of Rhee.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the Washington union's parent organization, said the connections create, at a minimum, "the appearance of impropriety." Weingarten also said she had "never seen anything like this."

Through her spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson, Rhee said she can recall no communications with her staff about Strong Schools or with the organization directly.

Fernandez, reached on vacation in Telluride, Colo., said Rhee had no role in the formation of the group.

"It's an informal group that came together in support of the teachers and the schools," he said.

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