Rhee still a factor in teacher elections

Controversial D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee will announce her resignation on Wednesday, nearly four years after she was brought in by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to improve the city's languishing public education system.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010

Michelle A. Rhee is no longer chancellor of D.C. schools, but her presence still looms large over a Washington Teachers' Union election that is entering its final contentious days.

President George Parker faces a stiff reelection challenge from Nathan Saunders, the union's general vice president, who contends that Parker was too pliant in his dealings with Rhee. He cites the collective bargaining agreement Parker negotiated with Rhee, one that weakens traditional seniority and other job protections for teachers. Union members approved the contract in June.

Saunders also pledges to pursue legal, legislative and lobbying efforts to undo Rhee's signature initiative, the new IMPACT evaluation system that links some teacher appraisals to student test scores and can trigger dismissals for educators who don't meet certain classroom performance criteria.

"I know what it takes to be the leader of a labor union," said Saunders. "We've had too much strength by the chancellor and not enough strength by the union and the community."

Should Parker lose when mail ballots are counted on Tuesday, he would join Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) as the third major figure in the 2007-10 school reform movement to leave office this year.

The contest's outcome could have serious implications for Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) and interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who have pledged to continue much of Rhee's agenda. A Saunders victory could open a new period of labor confrontation, on the heels of a contract that took 21/2 years and the services of a mediator to negotiate. The potential for strife is compounded by the possibility of a new round of teacher layoffs as the city attempts to cope with its budget shortfall.

"I think there will be gridlock. Confrontation and gridlock," Parker said.

He said Saunders is selling teachers a bill of goods by promising to dismantle IMPACT, pointing out that a 1996 D.C Council act bars the union from collectively bargaining evaluation systems with the District. More significantly, the $75 million that the city is due under the federal "Race to the Top" program is at least partly contingent on IMPACT's continuation.

Parker also said the issue is larger than Rhee or IMPACT. A national movement, backed by parents, business leaders and a traditionally union-friendly Democratic Party, is demanding fundamental changes in the way teachers are evaluated and paid. Parker acknowledges that there are serious problems with IMPACT that must be addressed, especially in the use of student test scores, and that Saunders has been falsely telling teachers that Parker does not want IMPACT changed.

But getting rid of it, Parker said, is not an option. "You look at where the country is going, and we have to get in front of a document like IMPACT and make it a fair document," he said.

But a segment of union membership angry over IMPACT and other changes could force Parker, 60, a former middle school math teacher, out of the post he has held since 2005. In the first round of voting, he narrowly lost to Saunders, who fell short of a 51 percent majority needed for an outright victory. The candidate who finished in third place, Elizabeth Davis, a teacher at Phelps Architecture, Construction, and Engineering High School, said she is voting for Saunders in the runoff, but she stopped short of a full-throated endorsement.

Parker has been scrambling for support within a 4,200-member union that has largely tuned out the contest since approving the new contract, which included a 21 percent raise for teachers. Just 881 ballots were cast in the first round last month.

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