D.C. teachers hit dead end in court challenge to layoffs

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2010; 11:15 PM

The Washington Teachers' Union's legal challenge to the layoff of 266 educators in October 2009 effectively ended Friday, when a union attorney told a D.C. Superior Court judge that it could find no evidence that Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee contrived a budget crunch to justify the job cuts.

"We didn't find anything that would warrant further briefing," attorney Brenda C. Zwack told Judge Judith Bartnoff.

Last November, Bartnoff denied the union's bid for a preliminary injunction barring the District from firing the 266 educators. She said the union had failed to prove its allegation that Rhee's hiring of more than 900 new teachers in the spring and summer of 2009 left a glut of new instructors, allowing her to create a sham financial crisis that fall.

The legal ground shifted in April, however, when Rhee announced the discovery of a $34 million surplus in the school budget. District Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi refuted Rhee's claim, and said that in fact the agency was at risk of overspending.

But the fiscal confusion raised enough doubt that Bartnoff granted the union "limited discovery" to investigate what financial information was available to Rhee at the time of the layoffs.

Zwack was not specific, but she said the 1,200 pages of budget documents and e-mails among D.C. school officials yielded nothing that would justify a request from the union for additional discovery. Bartnoff deferred a final ruling on the case until early next year.

A handful of the 266 dismissed teachers filed into the courtroom while the hearing, which lasted just a few minutes, was underway.

"All these people are here, and we're going to send them home," Bartnoff said.

It was disappointing news for the educators. "It's politics," said Evonne Clayton, a former teacher at Drew Elementary.

The layoffs, which came just a few weeks into the 2009-10 school year, were intended to help address what Rhee said in a sworn statement was a $44 million budget gap. The reductions were politically damaging to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), triggering teacher and student protests and a D.C. Council hearing. Council members accused Rhee of skirting the law by unilaterally rerouting $9 million into funding for summer school, adding about 100 teachers to the total of 266 who lost their jobs.

The layoffs were also unusual because they were executed not by traditional seniority standards ("last hired, first fired") but by criteria that allowed principals to make cuts primarily according to "school needs."

The layoffs remain politically volatile for presumptive Mayor-Elect Vincent C. Gray, who defeated Fenty in the September Democratic primary with heavy teachers union support. According to attendees at a recent dinner meeting with private education donors, Gray said he would not rehire the laid-off educators.

Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said Friday that Gray's position is that laid-off teachers who had received good evaluations are eligible to reapply for positions in the school system as they open up.

"Those deemed to be effective should have an opportunity to be considered for future jobs," McCoy said.

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