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D.C. schools, teachers union reach tentative deal

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; A01

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union have reached tentative agreement on a new contract, ending more than two years of closely watched and often-rancorous negotiations, union and District officials said Tuesday.

The proposed pact, which must be ratified by union members and approved by the D.C. Council, provides teacher salary increases of more than 20 percent over five years, with much of it paid for through an unusual arrangement with a group of private foundations that have pledged to donate $64.5 million.

The deal gives Rhee some of the tools she said she needed to raise the quality of teaching and learning in schools long ranked among the nation's worst. But perhaps more importantly it brings her the prospect of peace with the union as Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) heads into an election-year battle with Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and perhaps another candidate.

The negotiations also had been viewed as a potentially precedent-setting showdown between unionized teachers and reform advocates, who regard them as an impediment to revamping the nation's schools. It featured two of public education's strongest-willed figures, Rhee and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national parent organization of the Washington union. They relied on the services of former Baltimore mayor Kurt I. Schmoke as a mediator to conclude a deal, but each said Tuesday that both sides came out ahead.

"Although it was a long, sometimes difficult process, it was the right process to go through," Rhee said. "We've come to an agreement everyone thinks is a good agreement. . . . It took a lot of courage to get here."

Weingarten said: "There was a lot of anger and a lot of misinterpretation of each other's positions, but the best collective bargaining processes are ones where you are solving problems. Here the issue was how do we help kids in D.C. public schools and ensure teachers have the tools to help them."

The agreement includes a voluntary pay-for-performance program that will allow teachers to earn annual bonuses for student growth on standardized tests and other measures of academic success. It also calls for dramatically expanded professional development opportunities for teachers -- including school-based professional development centers -- and mentoring and induction programs for new educators.

The pact, if approved, will also afford Rhee and her school principals more latitude in deciding which teachers to retain in the event that budget cuts or enrollment declines force the closure of some schools.

The 103-page deal is significantly different from Rhee's original vision for a collective bargaining agreement, which she promised would "revolutionize education as we know it" when she first developed it in 2008.

Rhee garnered national attention from school reform advocates with a two-tier salary proposal that offered experienced educators a chance to make as much as $130,000 annually in salary and performance bonuses. The plan required teachers who aspired to the top pay range to give up tenure protections for a year, essentially exposing them to dismissal without appeal.

Rhee's effort to weaken tenure protections won her rock stardom in segments of the educational reform community hostile to teachers unions. It also helped her attract an estimated $200 million in funding commitments from private foundations. But it touched off a furor among District teachers and union leaders, and languished at the bargaining table.

Asked Tuesday whether her views on teacher tenure have evolved, Rhee said: "What has evolved is our common understanding of what is important and what is not important. The thing that is important is that everyone understands that tenure doesn't mean a job for life."

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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