Howard Law Dean to Mediate Schools Beef

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Kurt L. Schmoke, dean of Howard University School of Law and the former three-term mayor of Baltimore, will attempt to mediate contract talks between the District and the Washington Teachers' Union that are now in their 17th month, both sides announced yesterday.

His selection ends weeks of wrangling between Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the WTU over the choice of a third party to help untangle the negotiations, which are stalemated over salary and job security issues. Union leaders agreed to Rhee's suggestion of Schmoke, who was mayor when she worked as a Baltimore elementary school teacher in the early 1990s.

In a brief joint statement, Rhee, WTU President George Parker and Randi Weingarten, president of the WTU's national organization, the American Federation of Teachers, said Schmoke would begin his work "immediately, so that we can quickly come to an agreement that makes the District and teachers partners in providing our students with the rich, rigorous education they deserve."

Talks remain stymied over Rhee's proposal to fund a series of bonuses and sharply increased salaries. Teachers aspiring to the top pay tiers -- as high as $130,000 a year for senior instructors -- would be required to surrender tenure for a year, exposing them to possible dismissal without recourse to appeal. Teachers desiring to keep tenure would receive smaller -- but still significant -- bonuses and raises.

Rhee is also working on an overhaul of the District's teacher-evaluation system that union leaders want to see brought to the table. Rhee is not legally obligated, however, to bargain on evaluations.

Naming a mediator means that the District and the union avoid the formal declaration of an impasse, which would have been problematic. Such a move would have sent the matter to the D.C. Public Employee Relations Board, which tries to resolve labor disputes. But the board has been hobbled for months by unfilled vacancies. This month, a D.C. Council committee rejected several of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's nominees to the board because of their lack of collective bargaining experience.

Schmoke, 59, who has served as dean since 2003, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

As mayor of Baltimore from 1988 to 1999, he was best known nationally for favoring the decriminalization of drug use. He also had his own clashes with the local teachers union over an experimental privatization of nine public schools. One of them was Harlem Park Elementary, where Rhee taught second and third grades from 1992 to 1995. It was operated by Education Alternatives, a Minneapolis firm that was brought in by Schmoke on a five-year contract to improve student achievement.

Rhee has asserted that her students' standardized test scores improved markedly during her tenure. Although schoolwide scores showed improvement, there is no classroom-level data that directly support her claim. The firm's contract was discontinued after a study showed that overall, the nine schools it operated did not perform significantly better than other city schools.

Schmoke also generated controversy by giving up his direct authority over the city school board in exchange for $254 million in state aid. In a 1999 interview, he expressed regrets about his attempts at education reform.

"If I had to do it over again, I clearly would have sat with the constituencies in education, spent a little time," he said. "I think I would have taken a few months with the competing constituencies and developed a plan and just stuck with that plan."

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