Teachers Union Leader Pessimistic on Contract

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 8, 2008

The president of the Washington Teachers' Union yesterday all but ruled out acceptance of a proposal by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee that would require tenured teachers to spend a year on probation in exchange for huge salary increases and bonuses.

George Parker said Rhee's measure would unfairly deprive teachers of due process rights and expose them to arbitrary firing by principals. He said the provision is a major obstacle to reaching a tentative agreement on a new contract.

He also suggested in an interview, for the first time since talks began late last year, that city and union negotiators might have to settle for "some type of traditional agreement."

"We are at a critical point," he said. "The tenure issue is probably going to be the determining factor."

He added that unless Rhee and school system negotiators modify the proposal before teachers report to work Aug. 19 -- six days before classes begin -- he wants it taken off the bargaining table.

"I don't want teachers going back to school with this concept hanging over their heads," he said.

Rhee said she was not concerned about the direction of the talks, said her spokeswoman, Mafara Hobson. "We're confident things will be resolved by the beginning of school," Hobson said.

Until now, Parker has been extremely circumspect in his public comments about Rhee and the contract talks. Rhee, in turn, has repeatedly lauded Parker as a visionary union leader unusually open to new ideas to promote student achievement.

That genteel rapport was interrupted Tuesday morning when Rhee said in a television interview that seniority and tenure issues were secondary to the big potential payday for D.C. teachers.

"We believe that teachers really do see the advantages of this," Rhee said. "They know what rights they do and don't have. They really believe this is going to be in the best interests of students and teachers in the long run."

Parker responded with a Wednesday "robo call" to union members disputing Rhee's contention.

"The Washington Teachers' Union negotiations team is very aware that our members are extremely concerned about their seniority and tenure rights and will not reach a tentative agreement that is unfair and leaves members vulnerable to arbitrary terminations and no due process rights," Parker said in the recorded message.

Rhee has often said that recruiting and retaining higher-quality teachers is essential to any overhaul of the D.C. schools. Teachers currently gain tenure, and certain protections against sudden dismissal, after two years of service.

Under the "red" option offered by Rhee, teachers could retain tenure rights in exchange for a 28 percent raise over five years.

Under the "green" option, the annual salary and bonuses for a teacher with five years of experience could go from $46,500 to as much as $101,000 by 2010. Pay for a teacher with 10 years of service could jump from $56,200 to as much as $122,500.

Teacher performance would be evaluated using a series of criteria, probably including improved student performance on standardized tests.

But in exchange for a pay schedule that would make D.C. teachers among the best-paid public school instructors in the country, they would have to spend a year on probation, exposing them to the possibility of being fired.

"The tenure issue is what provides due process, and that's what makes it so important to our members," Parker said.

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