Washington Teachers' Union president George Parker loses run-off election

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2010; 10:42 PM

Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker, who negotiated a lucrative contract for his members earlier this year but was unable to prevent the launch of a controversial new evaluation system introduced by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, lost his job Tuesday.

Parker's run-off loss to General Vice President Nathan Saunders, his most vociferous union critic, could trigger a new period of labor unrest in the D.C. public school system.

It was just eight months ago that the District and the union reached agreement on a game-changing contract that took two-and-a-half years and the services of a mediator to finalize. The pact gave teachers a 21 percent raise over five years - with additional money available through a performance pay system - but also weakened seniority and other traditional job protections.

With his defeat by a margin of 556 to 480, Parker joins Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as the third major figure to effectively be forced from office by political fallout from the 2007-2010 school-reform movement.

"Clearly the votes speak for themselves. That's a reality I accept," said Parker, 60, who has served as union president since early 2005. He said his campaign fell victim to apathy - turnout was about 25 percent of union membership - and anger from a segment of teachers over his support for some of the changes under Rhee.

"I think any union president that is pushing and getting in front of reform, you take a risk, and I took a risk," Parker said. "I don't feel bad about any of the decisions because I think ultimately to improve education in this country, union presidents are going to have to get in front of reform."

Saunders, 45, who will become president effective Wednesday for a three-year term, charged in his campaign that Parker gave up too much to Rhee at the bargaining table, with contract provisions that include more latitude for principals in hiring decisions. He also said Parker did too little to prevent Rhee's launch of IMPACT, the assessment system that dramatically shifted the way teachers are evaluated.

Saunders, who narrowly defeated Parker in a first round of balloting last month but failed to win a 51 percent majority, said D.C. teachers sent a firm message.

"The teachers are very clear about what they want," Saunders said. "Clearly this is a race about job security and about IMPACT."

The new system holds some teachers accountable for growth in student test scores and can lead to dismissal for teachers who don't meet a detailed series of criteria for classroom performance. Last summer, 126 educators were fired because of poor IMPACT ratings, a rarity in a school system where teachers were seldom dismissed for performance. Another estimated 700 instructors were judged "minimally effective" and face dismissal next summer unless they improve

Saunders has pledged to use "judicial, legislative and lobbying efforts" to overturn aspects of IMPACT that he regards as unfair, although the union is barred by law from negotiating the system with the District.

In addition to Saunders, the new slate of union officers taking over Wednesday includes Candi Peterson, general vice president; and Mignon Uzzel, recording secretary. In the original election on Oct. 27, Sallie Littlejohn won a clear majority of the votes and was elected WTU treasurer.

Tuesday's election result culminates months of bitter internal scuffling. Balloting was originally scheduled for May, with the winners taking office July 1. But a series of internal disputes over the composition of a union committee to oversee the election landed the matter in D.C. Superior Court.

In a lawsuit, Saunders accused the union executive board - which is friendly to Parker - of trying to subvert his candidacy by improperly eliminating his $131,000-a-year union salary and refusing to endorse renewal of his leave of absence from teaching duties. Parker and other union officials said Saunders had been delinquent in his duties as general vice president.

The American Federation of Teachersl the local union's national parent organization, ultimately intervened twice, taking over balloting to form a new internal elections committee and then administering the election itself. It also directed the Washington Teachers' Union to restore Saunders' pay and leave status. The union executive board has offered to reinstate Saunders, but without back pay. A federal court last month dismissed Saunders' challenge to the matter.

The contest is also the defining battle in a long series of skirmishes between Parker and Saunders. They were elected to union office as a reform ticket in 2005, after a financial scandal sent former president Barbara Bullock to federal prison and left the local in disarray. But differences between the two leaders over how to approach school reform - and how to deal with Rhee - ultimately drove them apart.

Saunders called the raises awarded to teacher in the new contract "blood money," financed through the improper layoffs of teachers in October 2009.

AFT president Randi Weingarten said the road to Tuesday's election was "long and difficult," but added: "It was worth going through an arduous process to assure that WTU members fully exercised their right to select their leaders."

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