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D.C. teacher contract talks still stuck

(Bill O'leary - The Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Recriminations and political fallout from the Oct. 2 teacher layoffs have brought the on again, off again contract talks between the District and the Washington Teachers' Union, which are fast approaching the two-year-mark, to another standstill.

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The two sides have not met face to face since Sept. 21, and no bargaining sessions are scheduled. The last meeting came just days after Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee announced more than 380 job cuts to close what she described as a $43.9 million gap in the 2010 budget.

Union leaders said the layoffs, which included 266 teachers and support staff members, came without warning despite long hours at the table through the spring and summer. They also said they do not believe Rhee's explanation for the reductions, especially after the hiring of 934 new teachers for this school year. It strongly suggests that the budget crisis was contrived to weaken the union and force out older or outspoken instructors, they said.

"There is no trust right now," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the 1.4 million-member parent organization of the Washington Teachers' Union. She described the Sept. 21 meeting, an evening session in Rhee's office that broke up after midnight, as a "rancorous, cantankerous and stressful" discussion of the cuts.

Rhee, who called allegations that she intentionally precipitated layoffs "absolutely, categorically false," did not dispute that bargaining had ground to a halt. But she said that has been the norm for the negotiations, which began in late 2007.

"These talks have been at a standstill for two years," she said.

Union officials alleged continued bad faith by the District on Tuesday when they obtained an e-mail from the school system announcing that it was continuing to recruit teachers for this school year. The e-mail, written to job applicants Monday by a staff member in the system's human resources department, said the District planned to "resume the selection process next week." It told applicants that it needed to hear from them by Wednesday if they were still interested.

Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said the e-mail "incorrectly advised" that hiring would resume and was intended only to update the pool of applicants in the event of routine retirements and resignations. Calloway said the District "would absolutely consider" laid off teachers for appropriate openings.

The contract expired Sept. 30, 2007, but remains in force until a new one is negotiated. District teachers have been working without a pay increase for more than two years.

Rhee's supporters say she also needs a new labor contract to implement real reform. "It's hugely important that they get a contract," said Andrew Rotherham, a former Clinton White House aide and co-founder of Education Sector, a think tank. "On substantive grounds, it needs to be reformed, and [on] political grounds the system has to be able to get past this."

From the outset, the negotiations have been politically charged by Rhee's national stature as an educational change agent. Those who regard unions as an impediment to improving schools saw in her their best chance for a precedent-setting labor contract to break teachers' traditional hold on tenure and job assignments. They contend that those provisions make it difficult to oust ineffective instructors.

Rhee promised tens of millions of dollars in philanthropic backing for a two-tiered salary plan that would have paid some educators as much as $130,000 annually but would have required them to relinquish tenure protections for a year to qualify for the top pay scale.

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