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Unions slam funding process for D.C. teacher merit pay

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 16, 2010

"Three-card monte" and "Keystone Kops."

Those were the terms the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) used Friday to describe new hurdles that threaten to derail the landmark D.C. teachers' merit-pay plan, a plan which has drawn national interest among education reformers. The merit plan, which would be implemented in the 2010-11 school year and paid for with private donations, is part of a new agreement that school and union officials signed off on April 6.

But Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee's hopes to finance teachers' raises with a projected $34 million budget surplus were first called into doubt Wednesday, when D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray informed her in a letter of an investigation into the school budget. The letter singled out requests from Ms. Rhee regarding the pay-for-performance plan.

Then, on Thursday, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi said that Ms. Rhee's "surplus does not exist."

AFT President Randi Weingarten, who stood alongside Ms. Rhee on April 7 announcing that a tentative deal had been reached, said Friday, This week was not a shining moment for the D.C. government or the D.C. Public Schools. The Keystone Kops nature of their budget projections regarding the dismissal of the teachers and the funding of the new contract would be funny if it werent so tragic.

Three-card monte may be an acceptable game in some places," she said, "but it shouldnt be used as a principle to guide the DCPS budget.

And another complication arose Friday, when the Washington Teachers Union announced it had filed two motions in D.C. Superior Court. One motion asks the court to reopen its lawsuit against D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) over the layoff of 266 teachers.

At the time of the layoffs, which included scores of other school workers, Ms. Rhee said budget pressures necessitated the dismissals. The other motion asks for a postponement of the April 23 binding arbitration decision on the firings.

D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff dismissed the suit last fall and ruled that it was the prerogative of school officials to lay off workers.

But city leaders and union officials said they were shocked on Tuesday, when Ms. Rhee told them in a closed-door meeting that recalculations this winter had actually turned last fall's $43.9 million deficit into a $34 million surplus.

Mr. Gandhi corrected Miss Rhee in a terse letter, writing, "I was incredulous to learn that in your April 13, 2010 presentation to the Council on the contract, you asserted that a surplus is available to fund the proposed salary increases based on preliminary information. I am at a loss to understand why you did not consult with me directly or with any of my DCPS financial staff about the viability of the proposed package prior to your public announcement."

Mr. Gandhi added, "As you can see from the attached analysis, the $34 million surplus does not exist."

It falls to Mr. Gandhi to certify that DCPS has the funds to cover the costs of all salaries, raises and benefits cited in the contract, including expenditures for the merit plan.

The merit-pay component "will result in D.C. teachers being among the highest-compensated urban educators in the nation," the WTU said in an analysis.

"The individual performance-pay system will be operated as a 'qualify-in' option -- which includes student growth for tested and nontested grades and subjects. The details regarding qualifications and standards for rewards will be developed jointly and will not be based solely on test scores, but will include multiple measures of teaching practice and student growth.

"It does not require teachers [who participate] to relinquish their tenure," the analysis said.

Ms. Rhee's New York counterpart, Joel Klein, has said he hopes the D.C. plan becomes a national model.

Union leaders have been holding several informational meetings with their members, who have to ratify the contract before D.C. lawmakers have their say. The tentative agreement calls for regular raises retroactive to 2007, when the teachers' last contract expired.

D.C. teachers and other rank-and-file union members are scheduled to attend two meetings before voting on the contract. The next meeting is scheduled for Monday.

That is the same day D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray set as the deadline for the chancellor to respond to his April 15 letter that requested documentation on the school's budget and finances, including letters from private donors pledging to help underwrite the merit pay plan.

Ms. Rhee said on Thursday that she will comply with Mr. Gray's requests.