18-Hour Hearing Vents Anger Over D.C. School Layoffs

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

When D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray called his hearing on teacher layoffs to order shortly after 10 a.m. Friday, the first of more than 100 witnesses began their testimony with "Good morning."

Then "Good afternoon" and "Good evening."

And "Good morning." Again.

By the time Gray adjourned at 4:08 a.m. Saturday, after 18 hours of comment from parents, students, community activists, labor leaders and more than 40 teachers -- nearly all of it scathingly critical of the firings -- it was generally agreed that some sort of record had been set. Whether it was in the realm of democracy or lunacy depended on who you asked.

The council has never shied away from marathon hearings. A 2004 session on baseball stadium financing hit the 16-hour mark. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's 2007 confirmation hearing came in at a relatively crisp 11 hours.

But it was more than the elapsed time that made for a memorable day, night and morning. Before the last bleary-eyed attendees staggered out of the Wilson Building into the pre-dawn drizzle, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Attorney General Peter Nickles had been likened to King Louis XIII and Cardinal Richelieu, and school officials were accused of outrages ranging from ethnic cleansing to running a plantation.

It was the most vivid evidence yet of the passions unleashed by Rhee's recent decision to fire nearly 400 school personnel -- including 266 educators and 122 support staff -- to help close what she has described as a $43.9 million budget shortfall.

Gray, who is weighing an election challenge to Fenty next year, has denounced the shortfall as a contrivance by Fenty and Rhee to oust older educators Rhee deems ineffective or out-of-step with her reform agenda. Rhee has said the dismissals were made without regard to age or service and were based on who added least value to schools.

Gray -- joined for most of the day and night by council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), with shorter appearances by other critics of Rhee, including Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) and Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) -- insisted that pandering was not the point. "We wanted to give the teachers a chance to tell what happened to them," he said.

By that standard, Gray succeeded. An undeniable sense of loss and bewilderment resonated in much of the testimony.

There was Phillip Frazier, who grew up in the Sursum Corda neighborhood of Northwest and was the only male teacher at River Terrace Elementary before his termination. He said the boys at the school desperately needed men in their lives. There was Lena Brown, a registrar at McKinley Technology High School. She said she had never received an evaluation in 16 years of service before she was let go. And there was Lorraine Daniels, a special education teacher at Montgomery Elementary who has cerebral palsy. She said she was denied a classroom aide even though colleagues had them.

"It was just a way of getting rid of me," she said.

The fault lines of race and class, always present in debates about education in the District, were in sharp relief. Shortly before 1 a.m., one of the few Rhee supporters to show up, a young tech entrepreneur named Camilo B. Acosta, went to the microphone. "Firing ineffective teachers should be cause for celebration, not concern," he said, as the council chamber erupted.

A former special education teacher, Sharon Baldwin, at the other end of the witness table, had to be held in her seat by colleagues as she defended her worth. She denounced the young Teach for America graduates "infiltrating" the school system because of Rhee. She said they "have no idea how to educate a black child."

"I am about my black children!" she said. She held up two sheets of paper, evaluations from District employers that said her work "exceeds expectations."

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