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D.C. schools, teachers union reach tentative deal

District schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in October, 2009.
District schools chancellor Michelle Rhee in October, 2009. (Photo By Benjamin J. Myers - Post)

Although Rhee and Weingarten expressed satisfaction with the pact, it lands in the midst of a politically charged environment in the District, one that could complicate its ratification by teachers and approval by the council. In addition to the mayor's race, Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker faces a reelection challenge next month from union General Vice President Nathan Saunders, an outspoken Rhee critic.

Parker now will face that election with a contract in hand. "We really hit on something that can move kids forward," he said.

The private funding sources for the contract are expected to draw scrutiny from teachers and council members. The proposed pay package would be financed with grants from four private donors: the Eli and Edythe Broad, Laura and John Arnold, Robertson and Walton Family foundations.

Letters from each of the private funders were submitted Tuesday to D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, who must certify them as fiscally sound for the deal to move forward.

Private money has played a significant role in public education for years. But union officials said Tuesday that there was no precedent for private foundations underwriting salaries of schoolteachers. What makes the arrangement more unusual is that some of the proposed private funders are not known for their support of unionized teachers.

The Walton Family Foundation, created in 1987 by Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, has invested heavily in non-unionized charter schools, and critics say its contributions reflect an agenda that promotes privatization of public education. Weingarten said the District's fiscal situation and the national economic downturn left few options.

"Given the crisis, this is a very novel and clever way of trying to solve an immediate problem," Weingarten said.

The pay package covers five years, with base salary increases of 3, 3, 5, 4 and 5 percent. If the council ratifies the deal, the first 11 percent will be paid retroactively to the District's 3,800 teachers, who have not had a raise in nearly three years. The other major piece of the deal would allow officials more freedom in deciding whether to retain teachers who are "excessed" when schools are closed because of budget or enrollment issues. Under the proposal, teachers would be cut according to a formula that gives greatest weight to the previous year's evaluation. Seniority would receive least weight.

While District law already gives Rhee considerable latitude in such matters, the deal provides new options for teachers. Those unable to find new positions in the system could take a $25,000 buyout, or retire with full benefits if they have at least 20 years of service. They could also spend a year searching while still on the payroll, although they would be subject to dismissal after that.

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