Timing, Math of D.C. Teacher Layoffs Spur Anger, Confusion

District residents Autumn Jones, her mother, Celeste Jones, and Larry Frankel rally at school system headquarters in support of public education.
District residents Autumn Jones, her mother, Celeste Jones, and Larry Frankel rally at school system headquarters in support of public education. (By Richard A. Lipski -- Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 2, 2009

A student at McKinley Technology High School wonders whether looming teacher layoffs might violate his civil rights. Parents worry about larger classes and fewer electives for their children. And veteran teachers are concerned they will be shown the door.

Such is the fallout after D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced Sept. 16 that the District's financial problems will force the school system to cut spending by as much as $40 million, prompting an unspecified number of layoffs. The disclosure has been met with widespread anger and confusion -- not merely because it is bad news, but also because of the timing and underlying math, which critics call fuzzy at best.

The announcement came three weeks after the school year began and almost seven weeks after the D.C. Council sliced $20.7 million from the public school budget for fiscal 2010, which began Thursday. It followed a spring and summer during which about 900 teachers were hired.

When Rhee revealed the moves, she said the specific numbers had yet to be worked out. But after two weeks with little official information, students, parents, teachers and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray have been left wondering how it will add up. Teachers were supposed to be informed of their status Wednesday.

"I think any layoffs of teachers is absolutely ridiculous," said Alicia Rucker, a parent at Houston Elementary School in Northeast Washington.

Rhee said she waited until mid-September to initiate the reductions because she wanted to couple them with the annual fall "equalization" process, which moves staff from under-enrolled schools to those where attendance exceeds projections and more teachers are needed. The alternative, she said, would have been two cycles of disruption: one in August, to address the budget cuts, and another in September, when the enrollment dust settled.

The latest count shows enrollment at 45,322, more than the 45,054 Rhee forecast in the spring. Figures won't be official until completion of an audit.

Rhee says she understands this is a difficult moment. "When you are going through something like this, it invites a lot of emotions," she said.

Rhee also said that even if public schools had been shielded from cuts this summer, a need for "continued right-sizing" of the system would have triggered a smaller round of layoffs. After closing 23 schools at the end of the 2007-08 academic year, she said, the city was left with too many school personnel, including custodians, librarians, social workers and guidance counselors.

But according to an analysis by Gray's office, federal stimulus money and other funding should have filled any gaps created by the budget cuts in July. Overall, the system's $779.5 million budget for 2010 increased 2 percent from last year's.

"There's no reason why they should be facing this shortfall," said Jesse Bailey, Gray's senior legislative analyst. "The money has been replaced by stimulus dollars. It's as plain as day in the budget books."

Unofficial reports from parents, teachers and administrators suggest deep cuts at some schools, especially those that did not reach their projected enrollments: as many as 20 faculty and staff members at Cardozo High School; 18 at Ballou High; and 15 at Spingarn.

Teachers, contending with a rigorous new evaluation system and a detailed new set of performance standards, say morale has taken a significant hit. "This is such a confusing thing. There's so much tension in the air," said Vernon Williams, who teaches night English classes at Spingarn High School in Northeast.

The impending layoffs have sparked a series of protests. Students at Duke Ellington High School of the Arts marched in front of their building this week. About 100 students from McKinley, Eastern and Cardozo high schools have rallied at the system's central offices.

"How sad it has all come to this," said McKinley senior Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini, adding that the sudden cuts and lack of transparency surrounding them have violated his right to a free public education. "This would never, ever happen in Montgomery County public schools or Fairfax County."

School activists wonder why Rhee waited until mid-September to initiate the cuts, which they say will play havoc with student schedules and class sizes, especially in high schools.

"They knew in July they had to make a cut. The schools would have appreciated knowing as soon as possible," said Cathy Reilly, director of the Senior High Alliance of Parents, Principals and Educators, which advocates improved conditions in city high schools. "This is no crisis. These are choices that were made."

Some teachers union leaders say Rhee is using the layoffs to remove older teachers who might be skeptical of her reform program. Rhee denies that charge as well.

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