D.C. teachers go back to court over layoffs

Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 17, 2010

Citing this week's dispute over the existence of a $34 million surplus in the schools budget, the Washington Teachers' Union has asked a D.C. Superior Court judge to reopen its lawsuit challenging Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's decision to order the layoffs of 266 educators last fall.

Union president George Parker and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten said they renewed the court fight for reinstatement of the teachers, who were dropped from the payroll because of what Rhee described as a spending crunch. That was three months before Rhee said she discovered the surplus in late February.

The union motions were filed electronically late Thursday evening. A hearing is scheduled for April 23.

Rhee intended to use the unexpected windfall to help pay for teacher raises in the proposed labor contract. But she was overruled Thursday by the District's independent Chief Financial Officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, who said the extra funds were offset by $30 million of overspending in the school system's central office bureaucracy. Rhee countered that she had identified another $29 million to cover contract costs.

The union leaders said the disarray raises new questions about Rhee's contention that budget pressures forced her into the layoffs.

"We are very, very troubled and concerned about the utter confusion that has existed this week," Parker said.

Weingarten, leader of the 1 million-member national union, said "three-card monte may be an acceptable game in some places, but it shouldn't be an acceptable principle to guide DCPS."

"The Chancellor talks a lot about performance," she said. "What we're seeing here is a lack of performance."

Rhee said Friday that she was not concerned about the new legal action. "I'm assuming that the union has to do that. But we're confident of where we stand. When we did the [reduction in force] there was a budget crisis."

In its lawsuit last fall, the union failed to persuade Judge Judith Bartnoff that Rhee went on an unauthorized hiring spree in the spring and summer of 2009, bringing on more than 900 teachers with the knowledge that she would have to make cuts later.

The hiring was significantly more than in 2008, when the districted added 627 teachers, and 2007, when 527 were given new jobs. But in a sworn declaration on Oct. 30, Rhee said the stepped-up hiring was made possible by reallocating more money from central operations to local schools, which gave principals more money for teachers.

She said she also authorized the addition of about 180 special-education teachers, and that all positions were paid for in Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's proposed budget.

But spending pressures emerged in July when the D.C. Council cut $21 million from the schools budget to help close a $150 million citywide budget gap. Rhee said she also faced added expenses, including $13 million to retain 160 teachers who lost their jobs at schools where enrollment had declined.

Bartnoff said she found the financial stress to be authentic. In her Nov. 24 ruling, she said that a reversal of the layoffs would force Rhee and Fenty (D) to make other cuts in the school system, harming the public interest.

"The District asserts, and the plaintiff has not disputed, that in that event, other staff would be subject to a [reduction in force] -- even further into the school year -- or programs that have been deemed essential would have to be cut," Bartnoff wrote. "Such an action would not benefit DCPS, its teachers, students or staff, or the wider District of Columbia community."

The union appears prepared to argue that Rhee's recent disclosure of the surplus -- and the additional source of money she intends to use as an alternative -- undermines any claims of fiscal duress.

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