- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 15, 2010

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray fired the first salvo in a Washington schools debate with national implications on whether teachers should be rewarded for performance rather than seniority, expressing skepticism about a tentative contract negotiated by Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the Washington Teachers Union.

Mr. Gray, who is running for mayor, sent two letters demanding documents related to the contract’s finances — one sent to Ms. Rhee on Wednesday night, the other sent Thursday to Natwar Gandhi, director of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer (OCFO).

The letter to Ms. Rhee, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, gives the chancellor a deadline of April 19 to provide the documents relating to the financing of the “merit-pay” component.

Ms. Rhee has made rewarding teachers according to merit a priority of her tenure since Mayor Adrian M. Fenty put her at the head of D.C. schools in June 2007.

In that letter, Mr. Gray specifically requested that the chancellor provide documentation of “private sources funds” regarding merit pay. The letter to Mr. Gandhi also demanded budget-related documents on the proposal.

“This groundbreaking contract treats teachers as true professionals, and we’re happy to provide Chairman Gray with the information he has requested,” Ms. Rhee told The Times.

Mr. Gray, who is opposing Mr. Fenty in the Democratic primary, is among several city officials who are expressing concern about the general direction of the overall spending plan and the schools’ plan in particular.

Some lawmakers have said the mayor fails to substantially curb spending and his plan relies on spending reserve funds.

Funding schools has been a contentious issue since the council handed control of the school system to the mayor in early 2007. The mayor controls the direction of the school system but the council holds the purse strings. Mr. Gray opened hearings Monday on the mayor’s fiscal 2011 budget plan.

The relationship heated up last fall, when Ms. Rhee said a $43.9 million budget gap meant she would have to fire 388 employees, including more than 200 teachers. The council was blamed for the shortfall.

But on Tuesday, school officials said they had discovered errors on their part. The OCFO had miscalculated items in a cost analysis, and the miscalculations led to the dismissal of 266 teachers. The $43.9 million deficit has been corrected and turned into a $34 million surplus.

Because of the miscalculations, Mr. Gray said he now is skeptical of Ms. Rhee’s “underlying assumptions and overall way to fund this agreement.”

“I am requesting — by April 19 — Copies of letters, memoranda or other documents given to the OCFO, DCPS, or any other part of the DC Executive with regard to the teacher contract negotiations by private organizations that have promised to provide funding in connection with that contract including, but not limited to amounts committed and conditions on which funding is contingent,” he said.

In announcing the agreement, school officials said the merit-pay program would be funded with $64.5 million in private donations and that committal letters from the donors, including the Broad Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundation, would be certified by the OCFO.

Mr. Gray’s letter to Mr. Gandhi says there are “many unsustainable approaches” in the mayor’s 2011 budget plan. Mr. Gray requested Mr. Gandhi relay documents and cost analyses of school salaries and benefits.

In his letter to Ms. Rhee, Mr. Gray requested documentation on several specific areas, including enrollment, and the number of full-time teachers and others in the union bargaining unit, as well as their salaries and step increases.

Pay-for-performance plans have historically been rejected by unions that don’t want teachers’ pay and tenure linked to student achievement. The Washington plan is voluntary and, Ms. Rhee said, “groundbreaking.”

New York Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who on Thursday signed a deal that ended his city’s practice of paying teachers undergoing discipline cases while they did nothing in “rubber rooms,” has called the D.C. merit-pay plan a “game-changer” and said he hopes it will become a national model.

The D.C. plan, which also needs approval by the union’s rank and file, would allow teachers to volunteer for a plan that would grant them raises based on student performance on standardized tests and academic and other measures.

Mr. Gray sent his letters regarding financing the pay-for-performance program as Gov. Charlie Crist of Florida, a Republican who is seeking his state’s U.S. Senate seat in November but trailing in polls, vetoed a statewide merit-pay plan called Senate Bill 6.

Mr. Crist criticized the bill to reporters at a Tallahassee news conference Thursday as “contrary to the best interests of the people of Florida — because of the process by which it passed.” Senate Bill 6 “sped through committees without meaningful input” from teachers and unions, he said.

According to the Tallahassee Democrat, more than 100,000 letters, cards and e-mails were sent to the governor on the issue, mostly from angry teachers urging a veto.

“We’re thankful that the governor realized what some lawmakers wouldn’t,” Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said. Teachers, administrators and parents weren’t consulted and their views of this radical legislation were dismissed repeatedly by many legislators.”

The Gray letters follow recent news that Delaware jumped to the head of the line in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top funds. Delaware school officials worked hand in hand with union leaders to develop a plan that holds teachers’ accountable for their students’ academic performance. The D.C. plan fell short.