By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said yesterday that the deteriorating economy will force the District to cut the wage proposal in its contract offer to the Washington Teachers' Union. At the same time, Rhee spoke in upbeat and conciliatory terms about negotiations with the union, now in their 15th month.
The financial package Rhee offered in July called for a minimum increase of 28 percent over five years, depending on which salary "tier" teachers selected. But with the District expected to collect at least $456 million less in tax revenue during the 2010 fiscal year, she said the situation has changed. Rhee said she would soon submit a revised final offer.
"Obviously, we're in a much different situation financially," Rhee said at a mid-morning news conference, called to highlight improved rates of graduation, attendance and service to special education students.
The chancellor said the financial downturn has not weakened what she has described as commitments from private foundations to fund an unprecedented five-year program of "reform stipends" and performance bonuses for teachers. An information packet given to the union this summer said senior teachers could make as much as $135,000 annually in salary and bonuses. Rhee has declined to name the organizations but has mentioned four to private audiences: Gates, Broad, Dell and Robertson.
Rhee also struck a more optimistic tone about contract talks yesterday. She said that a new proposal, drafted by the WTU and the American Federation of Teachers and submitted last week, had ideas "that warrant some hard thought." The District is reviewing the document.
The union has not made its proposal public, but union sources said it offers Rhee at least some of what she has sought, including a process to fairly and expeditiously remove underperforming teachers. It also calls for more professional development for novice and seasoned teachers, which Rhee said she also wants.
"I think where we are is in a good place," Rhee said. "We finally have some momentum after being stagnant for so long."
Talks have been stalled for months over union opposition to Rhee's proposal. To gain the highest pay levels, teachers must relinquish tenure for a year, exposing them to possible dismissal. Teachers who want to retain tenure would receive smaller increases.
Rhee's comments are part of a broader effort she has undertaken to improve her relationship with District teachers. Her announced intention to remove a significant share of the 3,900-member instructor corps has spawned mistrust, especially among senior teachers. WTU President George Parker has said it is a major obstacle to a labor deal.
Rhee is now trying to temper her take-no-prisoners image -- captured most vividly in the broom-wielding Time magazine cover in December -- in a series of after-hours meetings with small groups of teachers. The two-hour sessions, over pizza and soft drinks at D.C. school offices, cover a range of issues, including the perception that she has targeted older teachers -- an idea Rhee said was created by the media.
One veteran teacher who attended a meeting e-mailed: "She was quite personable and easy to like, an excellent listener who promised to get us anything we needed." The teacher wrote on condition of anonymity because she did not want to become involved in the labor dispute. "Rhee is really making an effort to reach out to teachers and get our trust, which is a good thing."
Rhee also wrote an op-ed piece, published in yesterday's Washington Post, offering a vigorous defense of the District's teachers. "Those who categorically blame teachers for the failures of our system are simply wrong," she wrote.
Parker said yesterday he was pleased to see "a different side of the chancellor" emerge. But he also said he was hesitant to give her comments much weight until talks formally resume.
"The devil is in the details," he said.
The chancellor said yesterday that her advocacy of D.C. teachers and her intention to remove many of them are not at odds. For many years, the District allowed poor-performing teachers to remain, with annual dismissals totaling "in the single digits," Rhee said. That does not change the fact that there are "thousands of incredibly hard-working teachers in the District who do heroic things," she said.
Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) also highlighted several statistics that they described as encouraging news.
They reported that 14 of 17 senior high schools increased their graduation rates last year. Although the cumulative growth was only 1 percent, it represented significant gains at some schools, including Bell Multicultural (14.3 percent) and H.D. Woodson (10.2 percent).
Rhee said attendance has also improved. In high schools, chronic truancy -- students absent 15 days or more -- was down 30 percent in December 2008 compared with December 2007. She said diligence in reaching out to truant students helped account for the turnaround.
Officials also reported progress in complying with a federal court decree to improve special education services.
Since Rhee became chancellor in June 2007, the District has nearly doubled its rate of timely implementation of hearing officer decisions on special education matters.
The District has also reduced the backlog of open special education cases from 1,478 in December 2007 to 885 at the end of 2008.