- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 17, 2009

D.C. Council members on Friday voiced their frustrations with recent firings by schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, which she has blamed in part on school budget cuts by the council.

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray denied that he and other members were responsible for the Oct. 2 layoffs of nearly 400 school employees, saying he suspects they were an intended consequence of overhiring earlier this year by the school system.

“So much of this makes absolutely no sense,” Mr. Gray said during a hearing, which drew more than 150 public witnesses. “This is about getting rid of people they wanted to get rid of.”

Mr. Gray questioned why the school system hired more than 900 teachers earlier this year, only to cut teachers six weeks into the school year.

No one from the mayor’s office testified Friday, but Ms. Rhee is scheduled to appear at a hearing on Oct. 29. Friday’s hearing was the second of three hearings on the subject, the first of which was held Oct. 10 and heard testimony from D.C. schools students.

Schools spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said the school system would not comment before the next hearing and referred The Washington Times to an online fact sheet about the reduction in force.

More than 260 teachers, counselors, custodians and librarians, many of whom were escorted out of schools by police, were given notice of layoff.

The document blamed the layoffs on a $42.9 million budget shortfall for this fiscal year. It attributed the shortfall to $20.5 million in budget cuts by the council, a $20.5 million reorganization of the school system’s administrative budget, and $3 million in leave and severance pay to school system employees.

Washington Teachers’ Union President George Parker voiced concerns similar to Mr. Gray’s and also noted that grievances by teachers have doubled since Ms. Rhee took over.

Mr. Parker said preliminary numbers seem to indicate the school system was targeting teachers 40 and older. The numbers could not be immediately verified.

Testifying teachers agreed that many of the firings appeared to be motivated by age, but some said they also thought Ms. Rhee was targeting outspoken teachers.

Willie Brewer, a teacher for 25 years and a member of the union’s executive board, said he thinks he was terminated from McKinley Technology High School for both reasons.

“[I have] gray hair, and I’m getting old, and I’m an advocate for the union,” Mr. Brewer, 53, said. “Today you cannot raise your hand and ask questions. You’re setting yourself up for termination.”

Agnes Dyson, who taught special education at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, said she doesn’t know why she was terminated but thinks her opposition to one of Ms. Rhee’s compensation policies for teachers may have been a factor.

“I was outspoken against the red tier and green tier,” Miss Dyson, 40, said, referring to the plan that would allow teachers to choose a standard pay schedule or a performance-based pay system with bigger potential payoffs. “I stand for what’s right for teachers.”

Council member Kwame Brown, at-large Democrat, said the elimination of teachers is another example of a pattern of callous behavior on the part of the mayor.

“There’s no good way to get rid of people, but I can’t understand why they always pick the bad way,” Mr. Brown said.

Metropolitan Washington Council, AFL-CIO President Joslyn Williams said Ms. Rhee should be fired, claiming unionized school workers have lost faith in her ability to cooperate with stakeholders.

“I don’t think there’s hope for change with this chancellor,” Mr. Williams said outside the hearing. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty’s administration “gave her a blank check. She went out, and she wreaked havoc on our system.”

Mr. Gray said he has concerns about the chancellor’s ability to work effectively with parents, teachers and others and does not expect to get many answers at the next hearing.

“I guess I can remain hopeful, but if history is any guide, I am not very optimistic, to tell you the truth,” Mr. Gray said.

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