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New WTU chief: Top job ‘is to protect members’

D.C. teachers union looks to guard perks

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The new president of the Washington Teachers' Union promised a "progressive" administration rather than a "reactionary" one, and said his No. 1 priority is to protect members' job security.

Nathan Saunders said that while he is on the same page as D.C. leaders on some budget issues, the new leadership at both city hall and D.C. Public Schools gives him guardianship over the contract signed this spring that guarantees teachers raises for the next three years but reduces the role of teacher tenure.

"The new contract is guarded by new dynamics," said Mr. Saunders, who assumed his office on Wednesday.

The agreement was signed by then-WTU President George Parker, then-schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, none of whom will be involved in its implementation. But even with the changing of the guard, the issues of job security and compensation remain on the table.

But Ms. Rhee, brought in by Mr. Fenty and acting with his support, fired hundreds of teachers and other school workers during her 3 1/2-year tenure. These actions, among others, led the teachers union to support D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray's successful bid to oust Mr. Fenty.

"During the Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty administrations, WTU was not a real partner, but treated like a red-headed stepchild," Mr. Saunders said. "It's not always in the best interests of our membership to do something that is politically expedient. The trend in the U.S. is less job security. I'm moving in the opposite direction.

"My job is to protect members," he added.

In addition to 11 percent raises for this school year and last and a much-touted voluntary merit-pay package, the agreement calls for additional professional development resources for special-education and classroom-discipline programs. It also expands mentoring programs for new teachers.

As for tenure, the contract says that when declining enrollment and program changes displace teacher slots, performance will count for more than seniority. The contract also says displaced teachers are no longer guaranteed a job within the school system.

Mr. Saunders' comments come as the D.C. Council prepares to cast its first vote next week on a legislative plan to close a $188 million budget gap. It's a proposal that treads into an area of city spending that traditionally is left untouched: the D.C. payroll.

Job cuts, wage freezes and citywide furloughs are being considered by the mayor and lawmakers, who hope to finalize a plan by Christmas recess.

City officials also plan to delay spending on capital projects, including school modernizations and renovations - a move Mr. Saunders called understandable in the current economic circumstances.

"I worked on the school-modernization plan, but in this market, you have to make trade-offs for different priorities," said Mr. Saunders, who taught social studies in one high school currently under renovation and at another that had to be relocated because it was demolished.

Still, he said, his job is to relay and protect union priorities, which may not always be in sync with the city's.

"We're going to have a progressive administration, not a reactionary one," Mr. Saunders said.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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