Rhee's disclosure of surplus after layoffs roils D.C. races

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

Political fallout from D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's disclosure that she discovered a $34 million surplus in the system's budget -- three months after laying off 266 educators -- intensified Wednesday, landing in the middle of campaigns for mayor and the presidency of the Washington Teachers' Union and on the D.C Council's legislative docket.

The challengers for the two posts, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and union General Vice President Nathan Saunders, called for reinstatement of the teachers who lost their jobs because of what Rhee characterized in October as a $43 million budget shortfall. They were joined by council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), who introduced emergency legislation to restore the instructors to their jobs.

Rhee stunned council members at a Tuesday meeting by revealing that part of the five-year, 20 percent raise promised to teachers in the new proposed labor contract would be financed with $34 million in salary savings discovered in late February. The news infuriated union leaders, who took Rhee to court last year, unsuccessfully challenging the October budget crisis as a contrivance designed to winnow veteran educators from the payroll.

Gray, opposing Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in the September primary, used his chairman's gavel to pound at the issue during a budget hearing. He pressed Deputy Mayor for Education Victor Reinoso to recommend to Fenty that the teachers be rehired.

"What do we do, Mr. Reinoso?" Gray asked. "Do we go ahead and give these raises based on the largesse dropped in our laps? Or do we give people their jobs back?"

Reinoso said the two issues -- the layoffs and the $34 million financial windfall -- were separate issues and should be treated as such.

"We're probably going to disagree about this," Reinoso said. "I don't think it's constructive to engage in role-playing to engage in this situation." Reinoso did say that rehiring of laid-off teachers could be done "case by case" if their talents and skills matched openings in the system.

Union President George Parker has also urged teachers to treat layoffs and the proposed contract separately. He spent much of the day meeting with lawyers and said the union would probably return to court within two or three days. He said Rhee's announcement of the surplus "changes materially the facts upon which [D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff] made her decision."

But Saunders, who is challenging Parker for the union presidency, said the two matters were inextricably linked and urged teachers to reject the contract if it comes to a vote, pending fiscal approval by District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi. Saunders called the pact "blood money," underwritten by the illegal firings of fellow teachers.

"This is money off the backs of teachers," Saunders said. "It is unconscionable for the union to be looking past this event." He called Parker fully culpable in the discharge of the teachers.

Parker said Saunders would oppose any contract negotiated by himself and Rhee. "He's in opposition for political purposes," Parker said. "What we're asking is for the chancellor to stand up and do both," he added, meaning finance the raises and reinstate the laid-off teachers.

Rhee has said that she will not consider rehiring the teachers. But Thomas said he has introduced the District Public Schools Reinstatement Act, designed to immediately restore their jobs if Gandhi's office certifies that funds are available. The bill is scheduled to be taken up on an emergency basis Tuesday and would require nine votes for passage on the 13-member council.

Thomas said the legislation would not cover teachers who have disciplinary or misconduct issues on their records. Rhee has said five of the 266 laid-off instructors had been suspended for corporal punishment offenses. One was under investigation for sexual misconduct that resulted in the pregnancy of a special-needs high school student.

"We're trying to bring back those who the chancellor said were good teachers caught in the" layoffs, Thomas said.

Thomas could face significant legal barriers to legislating the teachers' return. D.C. Attorney General Peter Nickles said Wednesday that personnel issues were a function of the executive branch. "This is executive function. You can quote me," he said in an e-mail.

Thomas said the bill was being crafted as an attempt to reverse a procedural error, the miscalculation of school budget funds.

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