D.C. teachers' contract is approved unanimously by council

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The D.C. Council officially closed the books Tuesday on more than 2 1/2 years of hard bargaining and political tumult by unanimously approving a contract with the Washington Teachers' Union that promises significantly higher pay for educators who demonstrate results in the classroom.

The council's action was all but assured after the deal cleared two crucial hurdles this spring. D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi, after weeks of wrangling with Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, certified on May 10 that the city had enough money to pay for the $1.4 billion contract. On June 2, the union's rank and file, which has worked without a contract since Oct. 1, 2007, ratified the agreement by a wide margin.

The council vote came after just a few minutes of discussion.

"It's historic," said council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large). "We're going to pay our teachers more. They're going to be able to serve our classrooms better."

The deal will bring significant changes to how District teachers are managed, paid and evaluated. It provides for a 21.6 percent salary increase through 2012, with about half the money coming in a single retroactive payment covering the nearly three years they worked without a raise while the pact was negotiated. The package will boost the average salary for a D.C. educator from $67,000 to about $81,000, raising it close to the top of the pay scale for public school teachers in the Washington region, according to a union survey.

The contract also calls for a voluntary pay-for-performance system that officials say could add $20,000 to $30,000 to the salaries of teachers who show better-than-expected growth in student test scores and who hit other targets. The accord expands professional development opportunities and will establish school-based "teacher centers" where instructors can learn ways to improve their skills.

The pact -- in tandem with a new teacher evaluation system that will use growth in test scores as one benchmark -- will weaken job security for some educators. It allows principals to use performance, instead of seniority, as the chief determinant when reducing staff because of declining enrollment or program changes.

Under a "mutual consent" clause, displaced teachers who once were assigned to other schools -- whether principals wanted them or not -- will no longer be guaranteed spots in the system and must find administrators willing to take them. Teachers with good evaluations who are unable to find a job will have a one-year grace period, at full pay, to continue the search. They can also opt for a $25,000 buyout or early retirement with full benefits if they have 20 or more years of service.

The contract represents a major victory for Rhee, who pushed for an agreement that offered teachers richer compensation in exchange for greater accountability for their students' academic growth. The talks began in late 2007 and teetered on the brink of impasse in mid-2008, after union leaders rejected Rhee's proposed two-tiered salary structure, which weakened tenure protections for teachers.

It took the intervention of a mediator, former Baltimore mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, and Randi Weingarten, president of the D.C. teachers' national union, the American Federation of Teachers, to successfully conclude the talks.

While there were no dissenting votes, some council members expressed concern about the failure of the contract to award raises to teachers who retired during the long negotiation.

"Frankly, the logic around this glaring inconsistency escapes me," said council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D). Union and D.C. officials said they wanted to target money where it would have the most benefit for current teachers and students.

Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At Large) said final approval did not resolve lingering mistrust between teachers and Rhee over the layoff of more than 200 teachers in October and other issues.

"Just because there is a contract that's been signed doesn't mean there is new license to treat our teachers without dignity or respect," he said. "It doesn't mean all the wounds have been healed."

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