For nine years, Jeff Canady lived in a cash-strapped limbo. The D.C. Public Schools teacher was fired in 2009 after 18 years in city classrooms, the school system deeming him ineffective.
Canady, 53, contested his dismissal, arguing that he was wrongly fired and that the city was punishing him for being a union activist and for publicly criticizing the school system.
For nearly a decade, Canady, jobless and penniless, waited for a decision in his case — until now.
Earlier this month, an arbitrator ruled in favor of the fired teacher, a decision that could entitle him to hundreds of thousands of dollars in back pay and the opportunity to be a District teacher again. The school system can appeal the ruling, which was made by an arbitrator from the American Arbitration Association, a nonprofit organization that settles disputes outside of court.
“I’ve been a hostage for nine years,” Canady said. “And the District wants to keep it that way.”
School system spokesman Shayne Wells said DCPS “just received the arbitrator’s decision and is in the process of reviewing it.”
Elizabeth Davis, president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, said Canady isn’t the only one fighting to get his job back. Other educators who were fired years ago and allege unjust dismissals are waiting for their cases to be settled with the school system.
Canady was one of nearly 1,000 educators fired during the 3½ -year tenure of Michelle Rhee — the controversial former D.C. schools chancellor who clashed with the union and instituted a teacher evaluation system that dictated teachers’ job security and bonuses. About 200 of those teachers lost their jobs because of poor performance, 266 were laid off amid a 2009 budget squeeze and the rest failed to complete new-employee probation or did not have licensing required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
The union, which had assailed Rhee’s evaluation system, filed a series of grievances in a bid to salvage the lost jobs.
In 2016, a teacher won a case against the school system after claiming he was wrongly fired in 2011 for a low score on Rhee’s evaluation system, known as IMPACT. The educator won on procedural grounds and the arbitrator’s decision did not address IMPACT, but the union still hailed it as a victory in its battle over the teacher evaluation system.
“We are certain that there are still a number of cases pending, unresolved, which were first filed during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as chancellor,” Davis said in an email.
Canady was a third-grade teacher earning about $80,000 a year when he was fired in 2009 from Emery Elementary, a school in the Eckington neighborhood that later closed. The school system, according to the arbitrator’s decision, said Canady scored low on an evaluation system that preceded IMPACT.
But Canady and the teachers union argued that his third-graders performed well and that he had previously posted strong scores on his evaluations. They said they suspected his low score was linked to his public criticism of the school system and not to his performance in the classroom. They also argued that the city did not follow proper protocol when evaluating him.
In defending its action, the school system claimed that the union had included Canady’s case as part of a larger class action complaint and had waited years to proceed with his case individually. By that point, the school system said it no longer had documents or email exchanges in the case.
Davis said she could not discuss specifics of the class action filing because parts of it are ongoing.
The arbitrator said the school system was responsible for many of the delays in the case. The ruling also said D.C. schools improperly evaluated Canady and showed “anti-union animus toward him.”
Canady said in an interview last week that he was confident he would prevail and that he had a moral imperative to keep fighting.
He said that he had ambitions to be a top official in the school system and that his firing stymied career opportunities. He imagines that by now, his salary would be substantially higher than $80,000 had he not lost his job.
“I’ve been fighting for justice for people for years,” Canady said. “Surely if I am going to fight for others, I am going to fight for myself.”
Canady remained in the District and continues to attend political and community meetings but has not held a steady job. With no income, he has moved around the city frequently and said his firing has extracted a physical and emotional toll and “devastated relationships.”
Even if the arbitrator’s decision holds, he said he is unsure if he will return to the classroom. He said he still disagrees with how the District operates its schools.
“I love teaching where they are actually trying to help people,” he said. “And I’ll do it at the appropriate time and in the appropriate situation.”