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D.C. teachers union, former leader clash over pay

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 22, 2011; 8:03 PM

D.C. teachers voted their union president, George Parker, out of office nearly three months ago. But Parker has not returned to the classroom, and a fight has broken out over who should pay the balance of the $96,000 annual teaching salary that a written agreement guarantees him.

The Washington Teachers' Union traditionally reimburses the District for the salary and benefits of teachers who work full time for the union. But Parker's departure was uncommonly acrimonious.

Defeating him in the November vote was his most vocal critic, Nathan Saunders. Now that Saunders is president, he is balking at having the union cover the cost of Parker's time off, even though the terms are set out in a written agreement that requires the union to cover his salary through June.

Parker, 60, a middle school math teacher before his election to the union presidency in 2005, said that his leave is "legal and legitimate" and that he'll make a decision when it ends about his future.

"What Nathan is attempting to do is paint a picture that DCPS is paying me for not doing any work, which is not the issue," he said. "This is a binding agreement that every other [union] president has agreed to, and Nathan Saunders must do the same."

The pay dispute is just the latest in a long series of skirmishes between Parker and Saunders, who entered union office together as a reform ticket six years ago. Their relationship grew contentious during the years when Michelle A. Rhee was schools chancellor, from 2007 to 2010.

Parker negotiated a contract last year that was celebrated by reformers and widely approved by teachers themselves. But Saunders accused Parker of giving away too many traditional job protections in exchange for raises and for not objecting effectively enough to Rhee's new teacher evaluation system, called IMPACT.

More recently, Saunders has sued Parker (unsuccessfully), alleging Parker abridged his free speech rights. And the union executive board, which is supportive of Parker, zeroed out Saunders's pay, charging that he wasn't performing his duties. His pay later was restored

Parker's written agreement with the city requires that the union repay his salary and benefits when the leave ends. School officials say they do not have the legal authority to revoke the leave before it expires - even if he is out of office and has not returned to teaching.

Saunders called the District's position "absolutely preposterous," especially in light of a the city's bleak financial condition, which includes a budget deficit of as much as $600 million for the coming fiscal year.

"He's not in school teaching, he's not in the union office working," Saunders said. "DCPS is attempting to force WTU to pay for an individual who is not elected and not in service to WTU."

As the city's lead negotiator in the marathon two-plus years of bargaining on the contract, interim chancellor Kaya Henderson worked closely with Parker.

Henderson said Tuesday that Parker's salary was strictly a legal matter. "Our lawyers advised that we risk significant legal exposure in revoking the leave of absence since there are no provisions for revocation in the contract. As a steward of the District of Columbia Public Schools' resources, I can't pursue activities that would financially compromise the District," she said in an e-mail.

Parker made a total of $161,000 a year as union president - $96,000 from his teachers salary and the rest from the union. He said that Saunders was illegally withholding payment for 98 days of vacation time he accrued as president - about $61,000 - which would be more than enough to reimburse the city for the final seven months of his paid leave.

"He has no legal basis for denying any separated employee the required compensation for their accrued vacation leave," Parker said in an e-mail.

Saunders said he has every intention of paying Parker for his vacation leave, which Saunders said has been held up by an audit of union finances. "Once that is completed, he will absolutely be paid. He is entitled."

Saunders said whether Parker uses that money to pay the city is between him and DCPS. "All I know is that WTU is not going to pay it."

Parker, who taught in D.C. schools for 29 years, most recently at the former Eliot Junior High School, said he hasn't ruled out returning to teaching after his leave expires.

"I'm contemplating now what I would do," he said. "Right now, I'm on a well-deserved vacation."

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