By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2011; 8:15 PM
An independent arbitrator says that the District must reinstate 75 new teachers fired by then-D.C. schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee during their probationary period in 2008, ruling that the dismissals were improper because they were not told the reasons why.
The ruling, issued Monday by Charles Feigenbaum, was narrowly cast. It said the school system had the right to fire teachers during their two-year probationary period if they had received negative recommendations from school principals. Feigenbaum said the "glaring and fatal flaw" in Rhee's action was that the teachers were not given reasons for their terminations.
"They had no opportunity to provide their side of the story," Feigenbaum wrote.
D.C. schools spokesman Frederick Lewis said that the District was "reviewing its options to appeal or challenge the arbitrator's decision and has not come to any decision about further litigation."
Rhee could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The 75 teachers were part of the approximately 1,000 educators fired during Rhee's 3 1/2-year tenure, which ended with her resignation in October. Of the total, 266 were laid off in October 2009 for budgetary reasons, about 200 were dismissed because of poor performance, and the rest were on probation or did not have licensing required by the No Child Left Behind law.
Feigenbaum ordered the District to make a 60-day good-faith effort to find the fired teachers and offer them reinstatement in an appropriate job. He also ordered that they be made financially whole. Union officials estimate the back-pay award could amount to $7.5 million - a considerable sum for the cash-strapped District.
Lewis said the cash awards would be offset by any earnings since the day of termination.
Nathan Saunders, president of the Washington Teachers' Union, said the arbitrator's decision is affirmation that Rhee's aggressive approach to firing teachers was counterproductive and illegal.
"This argument that Michelle Rhee-style terminations en masse improve the quality of education is unfounded and expensive for the government when it acts in this fashion," Saunders said.
Probationary employees generally are considered to have fewer workplace protections than those with permanent status. But the collective bargaining agreement that was in place at the time of the firings made no distinction between the dismissal of probationary and permanent teachers.
Feigenbaum said that the city and the union had "a long unbroken practice" of following the same procedures for dismissing permanent and probationary educators, which required a negative recommendation from a school principal.
Before Rhee's arrival, it was rare for teachers from either group to be fired for performance issues.
Under the labor contract ratified in June, all teachers are subject to the IMPACT evaluation system, which stipulates that teachers receiving a "minimally effective" rating for two consecutive years face dismissal.