D.C. teachers contract paid for through budget cuts, reallocation of funding

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

After nearly five weeks of interagency finger-pointing and discord, District officials announced late Monday that they have found a way to finance the proposed teachers contract, paving the way for a vote by union rank-and-file on the $140 million pact.

Appearing together on the steps of the John A. Wilson Building on Monday evening, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi said they had devised a $38.8 million package of budget cuts and reallocations to close the $10.7 million funding gap in the contract and $28 million in projected overspending in other parts of the school budget.

The funding package delivers exactly what Gandhi had insisted upon in D.C. Council testimony and private deliberations with Rhee and Fenty before he would certify the pact as fiscally sound: a contract funded exclusively by public funds available without condition.

About half of the $38.8 million will come from stimulus dollars and other federal funds that the District will be allowed to use for part of the five-year, 20 percent pay increase promised to teachers in the tentative agreement. The rest will come from school programs that aren't due to spend much of their money until near the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. This includes funds for after-school programs, supplies and a math intervention program for the middle schools.

Once the Washington Teachers' Union and the D.C. Council approve the contract, about $16.6 million in private foundation money will become available to the District for the teacher raises. The other funds can then be rerouted to their original purposes, officials said.

"Today is an exciting day for the students of the District of Columbia and their incredibly hardworking teachers," Rhee said at the news conference.

Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union announced in April that they had reached a tentative agreement on a new contract, ending more than two years of closely watched and often rancorous negotiations. But late last month, Gandhi rejected Rhee's unorthodox proposal to use $21 million from four private foundations to help pay for teachers salaries in the contract because the money came with strings that he said were problematic. Among them was the right of private donors to reconsider their pledges if there was a "material change" in the leadership of the school system.

The shuffling of public and private funds that will occur before the end of the fiscal year effectively renders moot the leadership clause. When the $16.6 million becomes available -- as is expected after union and council approval -- it will be spent immediately on the initial 11 percent of the teacher salary package, covering retroactive payments dating to 2008. The chances of Rhee leaving the chancellor's post between now and October are increasingly small.

"We had to open things up and move some things around," Fenty said, describing the legerdemain in layman's terms.

The accord announced Monday opens the way for a ratification vote by 4,000 members of the Washington Teachers' Union, who will have 15 days to return ballots once they are mailed.

The union's president, George Parker, has said that he wanted to scrutinize the details of the funding package but that if everything is in order, ballots could go out in the next week. If the union approves the contract, that could set the stage for council ratification before the end of the school year in mid-June.

"I think it's good news for teachers and students," Parker said.

The financing plan also ends nearly five weeks of uncertainty surrounding the contract, widely regarded as a progressive breakthrough emphasizing teacher quality while diminishing seniority as a traditional determinant of job security and assignments. In addition to the pay raises -- 20 percent over five years -- the pact streamlines grievance procedures and calls for a redoubled commitment to teacher professional development. It also contains a provision for a performance pay system that could add $20,000 to $30,000 to the annual salaries of educators who meet a set of criteria yet to be formally determined. They are expected to include factors such as student growth on test scores and service in high-needs schools.

But confusion reigned virtually from the minute the tentative agreement was announced April 7, one placing in bold relief serious tensions between Rhee and Gandhi regarding the school system's finances. Rhee stunned D.C. Council members April 13 when she said she intended to use a previously undisclosed $34 million surplus in the school system's budget to help finance the contract.

Gandhi replied two days later in a stinging letter that he was "incredulous" to hear her disclosure of a surplus, which he declared nonexistent. Most of the extra funds, he said, were offset by projected overspending in other parts of the schools budget. That same evening, Rhee responded that she had "identified" an additional $29 million in the budget that could be used to fund the contract.

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