D.C. teachers contract may be close, union chief says

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 26, 2010

The president of the Washington Teachers' Union has told members that he hopes to have details of a proposed contract ready for their review after they return from spring break on April 6, a sign that the negotiations that began in late 2007 might be coming to an end.

In an e-mail to teachers Wednesday night, George Parker said the union is "finalizing discussions" with the D.C. school system on a tentative agreement, which is expected to include a 20 percent salary increase over five years, a voluntary pay-for-performance plan and increased latitude for Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to fire or reassign teachers.

"There still are a few technical issues we are working to resolve, but I hope to have an announcement and details on the new [tentative agreement] ready when you return from spring break," he wrote.

Parker could not be reached Thursday to comment. Rhee said the two sides are "getting closer" but stopped short of confirming Parker's timetable. The lengthy talks have been marked by several points at which agreement seemed near.

"I don't feel that in good conscience I can say anything and have credibility," Rhee said.

Several hurdles remain before the labor deal is finalized, including ratification by the union's rank-and-file members and the D.C. Council. Prior to that, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi must certify that money for raises is available.

Rhee is expected to fund a significant portion of the raises with donations from private foundations. A Gandhi spokesman said Thursday that the office has yet to receive any information from Rhee.

During the talks, Rhee has refused to name the donors or discuss details of their commitments. Sources have said over the past two years that possible contributors include the Broad Foundations and the Walton Family Foundation.

Asked how transparent she is prepared to be with Gandhi about the sources of the private money, Rhee responded: "Totally."

"We are operating under the assumption that he would need to have all of that," she said.

Parker and Rhee both have every incentive to wrap up the contract. Parker faces a challenge from WTU General Vice President Nathan Saunders in union elections scheduled for May. Without a deal that puts more money in teachers' pockets, he could face a tough race. In Saunders, Rhee would be dealing with a new union president who has been among her most bitter critics.

The contract talks have been viewed nationally as a potentially precedent-setting showdown. The talks pit Rhee -- who seeks to limit seniority-based job security for teachers -- against Randi Weingarten, president of the politically potent American Federation of Teachers, the WTU's parent organization, who wants to protect her members yet still position the union as a force for reform.

The District's application to the federal "Race to the Top" grant competition says Rhee has proposed a pay plan that "will revolutionize how teachers are valued and rewarded for their impact on student achievement." Rhee said the plan would "crack things open across the country."

Details of the pact are closely held because of a confidentiality agreement. But in recent months, sources on both sides of the table say Rhee and the union yielded ground on key issues. Rhee's 2008 proposal for a two-tiered salary plan to pay some teachers as much as $130,000 annually but require them to relinquish tenure protections for a year no longer exists in its original form. Instead, teachers with good records would be eligible for a voluntary pay-for-performance program.

But Rhee might secure new powers that would allow her to eventually remove ineffective teachers with minimal regard for seniority.

Under current rules, teachers with the least amount of service are "excessed" in the event of school closure or budget cuts. In the new formula, length of service would be outweighed by such factors as the previous year's performance evaluation, unique skills and contributions to the school community.

Currently, excessed teachers who don't find spots are assigned to schools by the District. If there are more excessed teachers than open slots, teachers at other schools can be bumped from their jobs by seniority. Under a proposed "mutual consent" provision, principals would have more power to pick and choose teachers.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company