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By Bill Turque and Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, April 30, 2009

Nathan Saunders, the second-ranking leader of the Washington Teachers' Union, has been an outspoken critic of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and WTU President George Parker, denouncing Rhee for her performance-based salary proposals and Parker as a weak and credulous labor leader. Saunders even unsuccessfully sued Parker in federal court last year, charging that Parker violated his free-speech protections by barring him from speaking publicly for the union.

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Now the D.C. public school system has sent Saunders, the union's general vice president, back to the classroom, abruptly ending the leave of absence routinely granted to WTU leaders so they can work full time on union business. School officials say he never properly applied for an extension of his leave. Saunders says that's bunk and that the school system and Parker have contrived to effectively oust him.

"There's no question about it," said Saunders, who was ordered in a letter from Deputy Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to report to Eastern Senior High School this morning or be fired. "This has everything to do with what transpired inside union meetings."

Henderson did not respond to an e-mailed request for comment. Parker said he never received Saunders's annual application to renew his leave and that their personal differences are beside the point. As it stands, he said, it's a matter between Saunders and DCPS.

"If he has a legitimate reason that he should not have been told to return to school, it needs to be looked into," Parker said. "Our personal relationship shouldn't have anything to do with it."

Saunders said his trip back to the classroom began Dec. 22, when he went to Turner at Green Elementary School in Southeast to meet with teachers. In a Christmas Eve letter to Parker and Saunders, Henderson said Saunders had violated the union's contract with DCPS by not checking in with the principal's office. She also said she understood that Saunders had wrongly told teachers that Rhee was requiring each school to place three teachers on 90-day probationary plans.

"These statements, if Nathan made them, are false," Henderson wrote. "We expect them not to be repeated. If they are, we will pursue all available legal options." Saunders wrote back Jan. 13, accusing her of threatening him with retaliation for union activity and demanding an apology.

Two weeks later, Henderson wrote to Saunders informing him that his leave of absence had expired in early 2007. Saunders says that he applied to the DCPS general counsel's office for a new leave but that it was never acted upon. He applied again last month but was told by Henderson in a letter and e-mail that the forms "were not sufficient" because they were not in the form of a memorandum of understanding signed by Parker.

Saunders said his leaves of absence had never before required that kind of documentation and that Parker and Henderson had changed the requirements without telling him.

Parker said the process hasn't changed. In an e-mail last week to Saunders, he wrote: "The bottom line here Nathan is that you have created your current circumstances by yourself and to attempt to avoid responsibility by trying to blame me is ridiculous and unethical at a minimum."

Saunders can still serve as vice president while working at Eastern, and he said he has no problem with going back to being a social studies teacher. He planned to report this morning per Henderson's orders.

But he also said the dispute isn't over.

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