By Bill Turque and Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 3, 2009; A01
In one of the most turbulent days in its recent history, the D.C. public schools system laid off more than 200 teachers Friday and coped with the abrupt loss of its 300 security guards, whose company went out of business overnight Thursday.
The combination of events, which included a skirmish between students and police at McKinley Technology High School that resulted in two arrests, highlighted the challenges faced by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as they struggle to reform the troubled system in lean economic times. The layoffs were the deepest cuts for the school system since 2003.
In all, 388 school employees received separation notices, the latest jolt to a system that has seen broad and sometimes wrenching change under Rhee. The schools chief has rolled out a tough evaluation regimen that links some instructors' job security to standardized test scores and raised the bar for other educators with an elaborate set of classroom requirements and guidelines.
In a sign of significant progress, a federal judge told Rhee on Friday that the city had made enough gains in reforming its special education system that he would consider releasing the District from court oversight.
But Rhee, beginning her third school year in the District, also learned on the eve of the layoffs that Hawk One, the company that placed security guards in the city's 127 schools, had gone out of business. The company had been experiencing financial troubles and was not expected to continue working in schools when its contract expired in December, but its abrupt collapse sent officials scrambling.
"These same security guards, they dealt with the kids throughout the year, so you take them away from the students in addition to taking the teachers away and replace them with D.C. cops -- it was a terrible situation," said Kaprice Perry, whose daughter is a senior at McKinley.
Schools opened Friday with a patchwork of police and school administrators staffing security checkpoints. Although the loss of the guards slowed the beginning of school at some locations, the day proceeded quietly by most accounts. Two firms, Securitas and U.S. Security Associates, will be working at schools beginning Monday, officials said.
The McKinley scuffle was the only serious incident reported. An estimated 200 students gathered outside the Northeast Washington school as the day ended to protest the staff layoffs. Witnesses said that a female student angrily confronted police and fell or was knocked to the ground. She was arrested.
Saymendy Lloyd, mother of a ninth-grader at McKinley, said she was arrested for disorderly conduct after questioning the student's arrest. "I said children should be able to express themselves," Lloyd said. "They said, 'You're interfering with police business.' "
Police said two people were arrested but gave no details.
"This should not have happened," said McKinley PTA President Michelle Lewis. "The mayor should have handled it different. This whole year is disrupted."
Officials said the layoffs were necessary to close a $43.9 million gap in the system's 2010 budget caused by a round of July spending cuts and what Rhee called the need to "right-size" a school system that has seen steep enrollment declines during the past decade. That meant shedding the cost of extra teachers, counselors, janitors and other personnel. Central office programs and personnel were also trimmed, although officials did not offer details.
The 229 teachers were placed on paid administrative leave and will be dropped from the payroll Nov. 2. They represent about 6 percent of the classroom teaching force of 3,800.
School officials did not specify which schools had experienced layoffs, saying only that the cuts were concentrated at a relatively small number. They said 39 schools experienced no layoffs, and another 37 lost just one staff member. A dozen schools lost five or more. The heaviest cutbacks were expected to occur in high schools, some of which have not reached their projected enrollments.
Sources said as many as 20 faculty and staff members at Cardozo High School were in danger of dismissal, along with 18 at Ballou High and 15 at Spingarn High. Rhee promised minimal disruption to student schedules.
Principals were provided with a "separation notification script" to use when presenting teachers with dismissal notices Friday afternoon. It asked that they return all District property and said they could return Saturday between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. to gather personal belongings.
At Cardozo High School, Brittany Lee, 25, a laid-off first-year special-ed teacher, was loading boxes into her car, aided by a student. She said some students in her class read on the second-grade level, and she questioned the District's ability to serve them.
"I don't understand what class my students are going to learn to read in," Lee said.
Veteran teachers had expressed fears that they would be targeted by Rhee and school principals, who were not bound by seniority considerations in drawing up layoff lists. Rhee did not offer details but said the terminated employees as a group were "consistent with the overall demographic makeup of the staff."
Washington Teachers' Union president George Parker disputed Rhee's numbers and analysis. He said he had been informed by Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson that 266 teachers were terminated. He said early indications, based on calls he had received from teachers, were that the terminated group was predominantly "senior teachers over 50."
"It's a very disturbing pattern," Parker said. "Clearly, a lot of mistrust has been generated by this."
Rhee also faces questions about the fiscal justification for the layoffs. D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, who contends that the dismissals are not necessary, announced Friday that he will hold hearings this month. "I'm convening this hearing so that we, as a community, can get to the bottom of these decisions," Gray (D) said in a statement.
Parker added that the turmoil created by the layoffs had deflected his attention from trying to reach a contract agreement with Rhee and the District. Talks have proceeded intermittently for almost two years, slowed by disputes over job security issues.
"Clearly, this has had some interruption," said Parker. "Our focus from a union standpoint is on the workforce and the students."
Asked whether Friday was her most difficult day as chancellor, Rhee said that it was hard to assess.
"Anytime you're dealing with a situation like this, it's difficult," she said.