Did Rhee Overplay Her Hand or Seek A Showdown?

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, October 11, 2009

I want to love Michelle Rhee -- really, I do -- but she makes it so hard sometimes.

The D.C. schools chancellor has made it especially difficult this month with her layoffs of 229 teachers and 159 other staff workers. She picked a spectacularly bad time, just as the school year was shifting into high gear. She also mishandled the theatrics in such a way that she enraged the unions and D.C. Council even more than she usually does.

As a result, labor and political tensions simmering in the city over Rhee's reforms since she arrived in 2007 boiled over last week. The spillage might jeopardize her whole project and poses a significant challenge for her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), as he seeks reelection next year.

The uproar is regrettable because the city and the region have a strong interest in seeing Rhee succeed. She is the first leader of the D.C. schools in recent memory who seems sufficiently tough and determined to fix the shockingly poor school performance that we've tolerated complacently for decades.

Something went amiss in this round of layoffs, however, and there are two possible explanations. Either Rhee overplayed her hand badly, or she and the mayor provoked a confrontation in hopes that it would weaken the union at a sensitive time in contract negotiations.

The underlying issues, as always, are employee seniority and tenure. It's critical that Rhee be able to push out bad teachers, regardless of years of service. That's pretty widely accepted. When she dismissed about 80 tenured teachers for poor performance in June, after giving them 90 days' notice and a chance to improve, there was barely any public protest.

Rhee was more aggressive this time. Instead of using the 90-day system, she cited a budget crisis that she said was "absolutely" unexpected. Then she had principals dismiss teachers who "added less value" to their schools.

Trouble arose in several ways, because she didn't take enough care to be fully transparent and credible about the reasons for the move and to minimize conflict with the council:

-- It looked suspicious that Rhee dismissed more than 200 teachers this month after hiring more than 900 new ones over the summer. In media interviews, including with me Friday, she said almost all of the new teachers were hired before she discovered in late July that her budget was being reduced. But that doesn't square with Rhee's reputation as a smart, hands-on manager.

-- It was disruptive that the layoffs occurred six weeks into the school year. She said she waited because it was necessary to see how many students were enrolled in each school. But even some of Rhee's supporters said she could have made the layoffs in August or early September.

-- Although Rhee said principals targeted teachers who contributed less to schools' needs, it emerged quickly that some of those laid off had received good performance reviews.

-- Rhee publicly blamed the layoffs in part on spending cuts by the D.C. Council, which fought back furiously in what became a shouting match over arcane budget details.

The council denied that it had cut the budget at all. The reality seems to be that it did make trims but that they weren't as large as school officials initially suggested. Also, the council's cuts were almost entirely in spending for summer school and so presumably shouldn't force layoffs until June.

The resulting surge in popular discontent was unmistakable in the boisterous rhetoric and political clout at the union-led protest rally at city hall Thursday. George T. Johnson, head of the District Council 20 AFSCME, urged civil disobedience and likened Fenty to Hitler and Rhee to Himmler. (He admitted later that he "got a little carried away.")

Six of the D.C. Council's 13 members attended the rally, and a seventh, Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), sent a message of support from his hospital bed. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray was one of several speakers who suggested that the event was the start of a period of turmoil.

"This school year will probably not settle down," Gray said. He was greeted with sustained chants of "Run for mayor!" The scene is sure to increase the chances that he'll decide to challenge Fenty, with firing Rhee a central plank in his platform.

Did Rhee want this showdown? There are signs that she did. For instance, she could have used the 90-day notice system again to lay off people. She said she couldn't afford to wait that long to achieve savings, but that approach surely would have avoided the drama we're in.

Also, she stressed that the backlash was entirely a result of her efforts to weaken seniority. Noting that AFL-CIO President Richard L. Trumka came to Thursday's rally but not to protests in other cities where teachers have been dismissed, she said it was "because in every other city where they've done layoffs, they do it by seniority. That is not a strategic or effective way to run this district."

That emphasis is revealing because it casts light on her thinking at a critical time in the contract talks with the Washington Teachers' Union. After nearly two years of negotiations, the two sides were close to an agreement over the summer. Now the layoffs and surrounding angst have hurt trust to such an extent that a deal seems far away.

Given that background, it's plausible that Rhee has decided she can't get enough concessions on seniority right now, so she's given up for the moment on getting a deal. Several well-placed sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations are confidential, said Rhee hopes, and the union fears, that the layoffs will weaken the union by demonstrating to its members that it couldn't protect them against dismissal despite seniority rules.

That suggests the confrontation between Rhee and the union will become still more acute. And it might well be aggravated by a parallel struggle between Fenty and Gray to be the next mayor.

E-mail me at robertmccartney@washpost.com.

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