Festivities, Anxiety Mark Kickoff Event

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 23, 2008

The morning began with the buoyant spirit of a pep rally -- all cheers, prizes and inspirational words from Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and other officials to launch the District's teachers into the fall term that starts Monday.

Before it ended, however, the "welcome back" assembly at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center yesterday took a more anxious turn. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker each seized the opportunity to speak to the audience of 4,000 teachers about Rhee's pay package proposal, which has roiled and divided them.

Rhee was there to win hearts and minds. Parker was there to count them.

Rhee is offering teachers a "green tier" plan that would boost many of them over the $100,000 mark in salary and performance bonuses. In exchange, they must surrender tenure protections for a year and risk dismissal by going on probation. Teachers who want to retain tenure can opt for the "red tier," which would offer lower, but still significant, raises and bonuses.

Rhee, a polarizing figure among teachers before she rolled out the pay plan, understands that she is now even more of a heroine to some and villain to others.

She tried to mend some fences yesterday.

"I know I haven't made your jobs easier this last year," she said, referring to the 23 school closings that uprooted hundreds of teachers, plus buyouts and relentless pressure to raise test scores.

"I've heard all the rumors," she said. "Rhee is trying to get rid of the veteran teachers. Rhee is trying to get rid of the black teachers. . . . I understand the anxiety."

"What I need is for you to have trust, in me and in the school district," she said, an appeal that sent a rustle of murmurs through the ballroom. "I know that trust doesn't come overnight, and I have to earn that trust."

Rhee said her goal was to make D.C. teachers the best paid in the country. "This is what I believe you deserve," she declared, drawing polite applause.

Rhee knew what she was after, but Parker seemed torn. He said he has been pelted with messages for and against the Rhee plan and is trying to decide whether to bring it to the membership for an up-or-down vote, even if it contains provisions -- such as the probationary period -- that he finds objectionable.

"One of the things my mom told me is that if you ever want to go from point A to point B, you've got to go through some stuff. Some messy stuff," Parker said.

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