Protesters Decry Layoffs in D.C. Schools

Several thousand D.C. teachers and supporters jammed into Freedom Plaza to denounce layoffs and budget cuts in the District public schools imposed by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on Thursday evening.
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

Several thousand D.C. public school teachers and supporters, buoyed by fiery speeches from national labor leaders and local elected officials, rallied in Freedom Plaza on Thursday evening against layoffs imposed last week by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Brandishing signs that read "This is not Rheezistan" and "Sweep Her Out," demonstrators demanded reinstatement of the 388 school employees, including 229 classroom teachers, who were fired to close what Rhee has described as a $43.9 million gap in the system's 2010 budget. Teachers union leaders say that the fiscal crisis was contrived to purge the system of veteran teachers, an accusation Rhee denies.

A sense of frustration and pent-up anger permeated the gathering, one of the largest shows of labor muscle in the city in recent history. It was designed by organizers to ratchet up political pressure on Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who is running for reelection next year.

"We are tired of being quiet, of just accepting whatever Mayor Fenty and Chancellor Rhee impose," said Leonel Popol, 49, a counselor at Cardozo High School. "The time has come to speak up."

Newly installed AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka called the layoffs "a cold, hard case of union busting" and pledged his support. "The labor movement is right here with you," he said. "We'll stand shoulder to shoulder with you for as long as it takes."

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, denounced the city for what she described as a lack of candor in handling the layoffs.

"We are not getting any real, valid, truthful information from DCPS," she said.

The rally occurred a day after teachers had taken their fight to court, filing a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court that seeks to enjoin the city from executing the layoffs. The dismissed school employees were placed on administrative leave and are scheduled to be dropped from the payroll Nov. 2.

The suit challenges Rhee's hiring of 934 teachers in the spring and summer, far more than the usual number. The union lawsuit says the number of newly hired teachers usually ranges from 250 to 350. That range is consistent with testimony to the D.C. Council this year from D.C. schools budget expert Mary Levy, who said the city averaged 294 new-teacher hires annually between fiscal 2001 and 2008.

"DCPS' attempt to disguise this mass discharge as a 'RIF' [reduction in force] caused by a 'budget shortfall' is clearly a pretextual attempt to sidestep the [Washington Teachers' Union] contract and to discharge a substantial number of veteran teachers," wrote teachers union attorney Lee W. Jackson.

District officials had no immediate response. Rhee said in an e-mail that she thought the union estimate was incorrect but that she was researching the matter.

Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker said at the rally that the hiring of so many teachers, nearly a quarter of the systemwide total of 3,800, was either malpractice or malice.

"This RIF was one of two things," Parker said. "It was based on complete incompetence, or it's an effort to get rid of folks whose hair is too gray."

Rhee said in a radio interview Thursday that veteran teachers were not targeted, and, for the first time, she offered specifics about who was dismissed. She said that more than half of the terminated teachers had 10 or fewer years of experience and that about 40 percent had worked for five or fewer years.

"I think that it is irresponsible, quite frankly, for the union leadership to be making accusations they have no data to support," she said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company