Rhee's IMPACT system linked to fate of tight D.C. teachers union election

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2010; 8:37 PM

Michelle A. Rhee is no longer chancellor of D.C. schools, but her presence still looms large over a Washington Teachers' Union election that is entering its final contentious days.

Incumbent President George Parker faces a stiff reelection challenge from Nathan Saunders, the union's general vice president, who contends that Parker was too pliant in his dealings with Rhee. He cites the collective bargaining agreement Parker negotiated with Rhee, one that weakens traditional seniority and other job protections for teachers. Union members approved the contract in June.

Saunders also pledges to pursue legal, legislative and lobbying efforts to undo Rhee's signature initiative, the new IMPACT evaluation system that links some teacher appraisals to student test scores and can trigger dismissals for educators who don't meet certain classroom performance criteria.

"I know what it takes to be the leader of a labor union," said Saunders. "We've had too much strength by the chancellor and not enough strength by the union and the community."

Should Parker lose when mail ballots are counted on Tuesday, he would join Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as the third major figure in the 2007-10 school reform movement to leave office this year.

The contest's outcome could have serious implications for Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) and interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who have pledged to continue much of Rhee's agenda. A Saunders victory could open a new period of labor confrontation, on the heels of a contract that took 21/2 years and the services of a mediator to negotiate. The potential for new strife is compounded by the possibility of a new round of teacher layoffs as the city attempts to cope with its budget shortfall.

"I think there will be gridlock. Confrontation and gridlock," Parker said.

He said Saunders is selling teachers a bill of goods by promising to dismantle IMPACT, pointing out that a 1996 D.C Council act bars the union from collectively bargaining evaluation systems with the District. More significantly, the $75 million that the city is due under the federal "Race to the Top" program is at least partly contingent on IMPACT's continuation.

Parker also said the issue is larger than Rhee or IMPACT. A national movement, backed by parents, business leaders and a traditionally union-friendly Democratic Party, is demanding fundamental changes in the way teachers are evaluated and paid. Parker acknowledges that there are serious problems with IMPACT that must be addressed, especially in the use of student test scores, and that Saunders has been falsely telling teachers that Parker does not want IMPACT changed.

But getting rid of it, Parker said, is not an option.

"You look at where the country is going, and we have to get in front of a document like IMPACT and make it a fair document," he said.

But a segment of union membership angry over IMPACT and other changes could force Parker, 60, a former middle school math teacher, out of the post he has held since 2005. In the first round of voting, he narrowly lost to Saunders, who fell short of a 51 percent majority needed for an outright victory. The candidate who finished in third place, Elizabeth Davis, a teacher at Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, said she is voting for Saunders in the runoff, but she stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.

Parker has been scrambling for support within a 4,200-member union that has largely tuned out the contest since approving the new contract, which included a 21 percent raise for teachers. Just 881 ballots were cast in the first round last month.

His campaign literature lists 32 initiatives that he said he have led to improved working conditions for teachers, including the new financial package, additional planning periods for elementary school teachers and tuition reimbursement for instructors taking graduate courses. Parker also said that when he took office in 2005, after a ruinous financial scandal that resulted in former union president Barbara Bullock going to federal prison for theft of union funds, he used his personal credit card to guarantee payment to WTU vendors.

But Parker has drawn charges that he has improperly used union resources to boost his campaign, accusations that could provide the basis for a legal challenge should he win. The American Federation of Teachers, the union's national parent organization, which has intervened to run the election after a series of internal disputes delayed it for several months, rebuked Parker last month for using the union's "robo-call" system to communicate with teachers about the election.

In one Oct. 12 message, Parker cautioned teachers "that we are in an election season so many persons may make false claims for their own political benefit." The AFT said it has referred the matter to the U.S. Labor Department.

Last week, Parker's spokeswoman, Monique Lenoir, sent out an e-mail announcing that the union will be meeting with "targeted groups," including new teachers, librarians and instructional coaches.

Parker said he is only doing his job as union president. Saunders said it represents a belated attempt by Parker to build bridges to segments of the union that he has ignored. "He's doing things to suggest that he is somebody other than who he is at the last minute," Saunders said.

The contest is the endgame in a long series of skirmishes between two union leaders who came to office as allies on a reform ticket in the wake of the Bullock scandal.

Parker said Saunders has been a divisive influence, focused only on advancing his political fortunes. Saunders has sued Parker unsuccessfully in federal court for allegedly abridging his First Amendment rights after Parker ordered him not to talk to the media. Earlier this year, the union executive board, which is friendly to Parker, zeroed out Saunders's $131,000 annual union salary and refused to renew his leave of absence from teaching duties, saying he'd been negligent in his duties as vice president.

Saunders, now teaching U.S. history at H.D. Woodson High School, provided the board with a log of his daily activities, some of which included single entries on certain days. Saunders said the log is "merely a snapshot" and not a comprehensive account of his union work. In September, the AFT ordered the union to restore Saunders's pay and leave status. The executive board has offered to reinstate Saunders, but without back pay. A federal court last month dismissed Saunders's challenge to the matter.

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