By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee faced mounting pressure Monday from teachers, students and elected officials to provide a more detailed justification for Friday's layoff of almost 400 staff members, including 229 teachers.
"The numbers don't add up," said D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who said he supports council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's call for an oversight hearing on the situation this month.
Thomas was one of several council members who met with a contingent of about 200 McKinley Technical High School students who rallied Monday to protest the dismissal of 15 teachers. Chanting "No teachers, no peace," they marched from their school off Rhode Island Avenue NE and staged a sit-down demonstration in the plaza outside the school system's headquarters, where they unsuccessfully sought a meeting with Rhee, who was not there at the time. They continued on to the John A. Wilson Building.
"This reduction in force has occurred without any input by those who represent us," said Ikechukwu Umez-Eronini, a senior at McKinley, where an after-school scuffle with police Friday resulted in the arrests of a student and an adult.
Rhee has said the layoffs are necessary to close a $43.9 million gap in the fiscal 2010 budget that was triggered by a round of mid-summer spending cuts by the D.C. Council. She also said extra personnel held over from the closure of 23 schools at the end of the 2007-08 academic year must be shed.
But questions remain about the severity of the crisis Rhee has described, in light of the growth of the school budget. The $779.5 million spending plan for 2010 represents a net increase of $14.9 million over fiscal 2009, according to an analysis by Gray's office.
Critics suggest that Rhee has contrived the shortfall to pursue her long-term goal of replacing most of the city's teacher corps, especially veteran instructors -- a charge she denies. Last fall, she directed principals to notify teachers they regarded as underperforming that they faced dismissal at the end of the 2008-09 school year unless they improved. About 80 instructors were terminated.
Rhee's five-year plan, submitted to the council last November, describes her intention to "identify and transition out a significant share" of instructors.
Rhee's actions also are drawing scrutiny because she elected to wait until the third week of the school year, in mid-September -- and more than seven weeks after the council's July 31 vote on the spending cuts -- to initiate the layoffs. That followed a spring and summer during which the school system hired approximately 900 teachers.
"It appears to me that the chancellor over-hired," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6). "The excuse that the council cut the budget not only doesn't wash, but our budget work was done at the end of July. The question is, did the system continue to hire?"
Rhee, asked about hiring activity and other issues surrounding the dismissals, replied in an e-mail Monday that she was "checking with legal to see what we can release."
In a Sept. 23 interview, a week after announcing the layoffs, Rhee said the budget crunch was legitimate but acknowledged that she intended to use it as an opportunity to continue removing under-performing teachers from the system.
"I'm trying to figure out how to manage the realities in a way that will benefit kids," she told The Washington Post. "As we are having to downsize staff, are we [looking at] people who add the least value? Absolutely."
Rhee said that meant novice teachers as well as veterans. Principals told her, she said, that some wanted to drop as many new hires who are considered "mistakes" as they did older staff members.
When budget issues force staff reductions, D.C. law gives Rhee and her principals broad latitude to make decisions about dismissals according to four general categories: the needs of the school, contributions and performance, special experience that teachers might bring to class, and length of service.
McKinley's situation illustrates the tensions and conflicting agendas involved. When Rhee's office ordered the school to cut $1.1 million from its $7 million budget, a committee of teachers and parents urged Principal David Pinder to reduce administrative staff. They cited one of the school's three assistant principals and four teacher "coaches" as among the cuts that would be least painful to students.
But in a Sept. 28 letter to McKinley parents, Pinder said he was reluctant to cut staff who could help other teachers improve.
"Several research studies have concluded that the growth of student achievement can be attributed directly to the quality of the instructor in the classroom," Pinder wrote. "The growth of our teachers to improve for our students remains my top priority."
Pinder declined to comment Monday, saying he could speak only with the authorization of the chancellor's communications office.
Among the 15 McKinley staff members dismissed Friday were two popular guidance counselors, Sheila Gill and Rhonda Robinson. Gill, who chaired the internal committee that advised Pinder, is also a member of the executive board of the Washington Teachers' Union.
Other staff will step in for the departed counselors, but McKinley seniors were especially upset at the loss of the pair, who they said were key figures in their college planning.
"It's messed up," said Antoine Prue, 17, a senior who wants to study business at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Ms. Robinson, she helped me a lot. I needed her."