At hearing, teachers assail Rhee over layoffs

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009 10:57 AM

Union members, parents and community activists packed the D.C Council chambers Thursday morning for Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's first detailed account of the teacher layoffs and budget cuts that have placed her under the heaviest political fire of her 28-month tenure.

"A grave injustice has been committed against us," said Pearlie Christian, a former kindergarten teacher at Barnard Elementary School and one of 388 school system staff laid off on Oct. 2 to help close what Rhee said was a $43.9 million shortfall in the school system's 2010 budget.

Union leaders have denounced the move as an illegal mass firing intended to purge older educators. They have gone to court to have the teachers reinstated and returned to the classroom.

As anti-Rhee slogans blared from a bullhorn atop a car circling the Wilson Building, about two dozen counter-demonstrators from D.C. School Reform Now, a group that supports Rhee's efforts, wore green T-shirts saying "Put Kids First."

"They're scared," Mary C. Williams, a Southwest D.C. resident, said of the opposition to Rhee. "They want to protect the same school system that has failed for three generations."

Council members called for the hearing because they are angry that Rhee has placed responsibility for the cuts at their feet, a move many of them call disingenuous. A $20.7 million budget reduction, approved in July as part of a city-wide belt tightening, involved primarily cuts to 2010 summer school and elimination of an annual two percent inflationary increase in per-pupil funding. None of that, council members contend, should have resulted in layoffs, or a $43. 9 million shortfall more than twice the size of the council's mid-summer adjustment.

In advance written responses supplied to Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's staff late Wednesday, Rhee supplied some new information about the demographic profile of the teachers fired Oct. 2, and the 934 hired during the spring and summer.

Rhee deflected claims of age discrimination in interviews earlier this month, saying that the average age of the laid-off educators was consistent with age of the school workforce. But Rhee told Gray Wednesday that while the average age of the District's teachers is 42, the average age of those who were separated is 48.

The average age of the 934 new hires is 32. More than 200 were recruited from non-traditional teacher training programs such as Teach for America -- of which Rhee and several of her top deputies are alumni -- and the D.C. Teaching Fellows Program. Recruits in the fellows program receive training from the New Teacher Project, the nonprofit founded by Rhee.

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