Fenty, teachers union lobby on behalf of proposed contract

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and teachers union leaders touted a proposed new labor contract Wednesday as a historic moment for public education in the District but then turned to the task of selling the deal to the two constituencies that will have to approve it: rank-and-file instructors and the D.C. Council.

The tentative agreement, which comes after more than two years of bargaining, would raise teacher pay by more than 20 percent by 2012, increasing the average salary of a D.C. educator from about $67,000 to $81,000. If approved, the financial package will make teacher salaries in the District competitive with those in surrounding suburban school districts, according to an analysis by the American Federation of Teachers. The contract also calls for a voluntary pay-for-performance plan, under which teachers could earn an additional $20,000 to $30,000 a year based on improved student achievement, assignment to a high-needs school or whether they teach a subject in high demand.

Although teacher tenure protections remain in place, the pact affirms Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's power to retain teachers on the basis of performance -- not seniority -- in the event that budget cuts or enrollment declines force the closure of some schools.

"I think it's sufficient to say this contract is one of the most progressive agreements between a teachers union and a school system management in the country," said Fenty (D), appearing Wednesday with Rhee, Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on the steps of Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast.

Elements of the contract are progressive, but they do not add up to the transformational agreement that Rhee proposed in 2008. About 20 percent of U.S. children are in school districts that experiment with some form of merit pay, according to the National Center on Performance Incentives at Vanderbilt University. The power to decide which teachers to retain in the event of school closures, known as "mutual consent," has been exercised in the Chicago and New York school systems for several years.

Rhee has briefed members of the council, including Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), on the contract. Parker was scheduled to meet Wednesday night with his union's building representatives and executive committee to discuss the pact, which has been getting early reviews from teachers.

"I believe that George Parker sold teachers out," said Jerome Brocks, a veteran special education teacher. "The pay scale is inviting, but the bottom line is that [Rhee] is being given too much power to fire teachers at will."

Others are concerned about the unusual commitment of $64.5 million in private foundation money that Rhee plans to use to fund most of the performance bonuses and an unspecified portion of the raises. The Eli and Edythe Broad, Laura and John Arnold, Robertson and Walton Family foundations have pledged funds to the District.

Rhee said Wednesday that an analysis she commissioned shows that the District would be able to assume financial responsibility for the bonuses and other pay when the private donations are exhausted. "We are hoping to see savings in places that will allow us to continue this on," she said. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi is reviewing the commitment letters from the foundations and must approve them as fiscally sound before the council can act.

But Nathan Saunders, the Washington Teachers' Union general vice president and a candidate for president in next month's union elections, said educators need to look carefully at the larger implications of allowing private foundations such a major role.

"This is a significant moment not just for teachers, but for public employees," Saunders said. "This is heavy medicine."

Vernon Williams, who recently retired as a teacher at Spingarn High School in Northeast and is a member of the union negotiating committee, said the pact is in the best interests of teachers. "I feel very positive about it," he said. "There were a lot of compromises. Everyone wanted to have their way."

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