D.C. Teachers, Rhee Appear Close to Contract; Both Sides Might Yield Some Ground

 Union President George Parker puts a contract deal with D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee at just 50-50.
Union President George Parker puts a contract deal with D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee at just 50-50. (Susan Biddle - The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 11, 2009

D.C. Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union are close to an agreement that would give the District more power to remove ineffective teachers, but both sides say the negotiations could still collapse, and the union's president places the chances of actually closing a deal at no better than 50-50.

Neither Rhee nor Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker would elaborate on the unresolved issues, citing a confidentiality agreement. Interviews in recent weeks with sources on both sides of the bargaining table emphasize that nothing is final and that any agreement would require the approval of teachers. But they also say that the deal taking shape has evolved substantially over the past year, with both Rhee and the union poised to yield ground on key issues.

Gone, for example, is the two-tiered, "red-and-green" salary plan that garnered Rhee national attention when she unveiled it last summer. It would have paid some teachers as much as $130,000 annually -- with help from private foundations -- but required them to relinquish tenure protections for a year to qualify for the top pay scale, exposing them to dismissal without possibility of appeal. Gone also, city and union sources say, is Rhee's attempt to weaken tenure provisions as they are currently written, which grant teachers with at least two years' experience due-process rights in the event they are fired.

The nearly two-year negotiations are widely viewed as a potentially precedent-setting showdown between an aggressive new generation of urban education leaders, led by Rhee, and the American Federation of Teachers, WTU's politically potent parent organization. Although the major players decline to disclose details, they agree that their bargaining has reached the endgame.

"There are a few very critical issues that both sides have very strong opinions about," Parker said in an interview Wednesday. "The question is whether we can craft language that both sides can live with. We're at 50-50."

Rhee said the two sides are "very close" and characterized the talks as "down to a couple of smaller issues."

"Would either side say it is definitely going to happen? No," she said in an e-mail Wednesday. "However, we're further than we've been."

The pay package under discussion calls for a 20 percent increase over five years, including 3 percent retroactively for each year teachers have worked without a contract since it expired in September 2007. Under the terms being discussed, teachers with good records would be eligible to earn extra money under a pay-for-performance program that would begin in 2010.

Tenure protections are likely to remain in place despite Rhee's outspoken criticism of the provisions as a major obstacle to reform. As recently as July 5, she told an audience at the Aspen Ideas Festival: "Right now, the culture within education and within the teaching ranks is once you have tenure, you have a job for life. I believe that mind-set has to be completely flipped on its head and that we have to move out of the idea that a teaching job is a right. . . . And unless you can show you are doing positive things for kids, you cannot have the privilege of teaching."

But Rhee is close to securing other new powers that would allow her to eventually remove ineffective teachers from classrooms. The proposal, first reported by teacher and WTU trustee Candi Peterson in her "Washington Teacher" blog, would allow the District to remove teachers from schools -- because of closure, consolidation, declining enrollment, budget cuts or takeover by an outside organization -- with minimal regard for seniority. Under current rules, teachers with the least amount of service are "excessed" first.

Under the proposal, teachers would be cut according to a formula that gives greatest weight to the previous year's performance evaluation, "unique skills and qualifications" and other contributions to the school community. Length of service would be weighted the least.

The proposal would also give principals more latitude to select staff from the pool of cut teachers. Currently, teachers in that group who don't find spots are assigned to schools by the school district's human resources department. If there are more excessed teachers than open slots, teachers at other schools can be bumped from their jobs on the basis of seniority.

Under a proposed "mutual consent" provision, principals would have more power to pick and choose teachers. Teachers who failed to find new assignments would have three options. They could remain on the payroll for a year, accepting at least two spot assignments as substitutes or tutors or in some other support role. If they can't find a permanent job after a year, they would be fired. Teachers could also choose to take a $25,000 buyout or, if they have at least 20 years' service to the city school system, retire with full benefits.

The proposals have triggered new tensions within the union's leadership. Executive Vice President Nathan Saunders, a longtime critic of Parker's, said the proposals all but eliminate job security for teachers.

"This contract looks to be another approach to diminishing teachers' employment rights," Saunders said.

Peterson's decision to publish draft documents from the contract negotiations drew an unusual public rebuke from Parker, who sent a letter and a voice mail message to members denouncing her for having "maliciously undermined" the confidentiality of the talks.

Peterson, who said she is not bound by any confidentiality agreement, said teachers have grown frustrated with the lack of information available about the protracted negotiations.

"He's promised to tell members about the contract, but he never follows through," she said.



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