District's deal with teachers union had key support from Baltimore ex-mayor

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

Kurt Schmoke wasn't looking to change hearts and minds when he entered contract talks between D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union in spring 2009.

The negotiations, which had begun in late 2007, were on the verge of collapse. Teachers looked across the bargaining table and saw in Rhee a union-busting ideologue trying to forge a national reputation by robbing them of their job security. Viewed from the school system's side, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, head of the union's national parent organization, was a disingenuous labor politician more committed to preserving jobs than raising the quality of teaching in the District. There was consensus on only one thing: They needed a third party to break the impasse.

Schmoke didn't make the principal players grow fonder of each other, but both sides said this week that without the mediation of the Howard University law school dean and former three-term mayor of Baltimore, the tentative agreement announced Wednesday would not have come together.

"I give him full credit," said Rhee, who was a young elementary school teacher in Baltimore when Schmoke was mayor. "By the time we brought him in, we thought, 'This thing is never going to happen.' "

"What he did was he kept us talking," Weingarten said. "The rancor you were seeing outside the room was similar to the rancor at the bargaining table."

Schmoke, who said at the announcement that he was "very proud to work on this matter," had not yearned for a return to the pressure cooker of public-sector collective bargaining. At 59, he was settled in at Howard. His highest-profile role since leaving the mayoralty in 1998 was on HBO's "The Wire", with two appearances as a Baltimore city health commissioner.

That changed when Schmoke received a call from AFT Executive Vice President Lorretta Johnson, a top official with the Baltimore Teachers Union who had negotiated with him when he was mayor. Schmoke's experience, as a lawyer and as a mayor who knew how school districts operated, appealed to both sides, who had been in talks since December 2007.

Schmoke became a presence at AFT headquarters on New Jersey Avenue, convening the two sides in one room and pulling them apart when things heated up. More than a few times, the sun was coming up as negotiators straggled home. There were days, he said, when he "felt like Sisyphus pushing the rock to the top," only to see it rolled back by fresh disagreements over language, uncertainties about private funding or unexpected external events, such as the October layoffs of 266 teachers.

"That was a difficult moment," he said of the layoffs. But he added, "I felt they would reach agreement" because the conversation always came back to "keeping the focus on the children of the District."

One of Schmoke's principal tasks was dealing with union frustration that one critical issue was not even on the table. By District law, Rhee was not obligated to negotiate on the new teacher evaluation system introduced last fall that could lead to dismissal for teachers with low scores. It uses growth in student test scores to help assess the effectiveness of some educators, employing a methodology that the union says can be unreliable.

Schmoke couldn't do anything about the law, but he helped craft "side letters" to the contract that call for the appointment of a union-management working group that meets monthly to review teacher concerns about the system, called Impact. The agreement also calls for an independent evaluation of Impact.

For Rhee and her senior staff, who had relatively little experience with collective bargaining, Schmoke was a reassuring force who explained that they would not get everything they wanted and who constantly reminded them of the consequences of not reaching a deal.

"He was great in helping us keep the big picture in mind," Rhee said. "Very even-keeled and soft-spoken, the perfect guy to shepherd us through this process."

Kaya Henderson, the District's lead negotiator, added: "He kept us at the table when we wanted to walk away. We wouldn't have been able to do it without him."

But in caucuses with each side, the mild-mannered Schmoke also delivered the hard line. And he did it with "an extreme frankness" that got everyone's attention, said one key participant who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

"He was a tough dude," he said. "There was some very heated moments where he would say, 'It's crunch time; you've got to make a decision.' "

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