- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2007

“We have thousands of people right now who don’t know what their jobs are and who are not being effective in the positions that they have. So, why am I going to layer on top of that additional people who also won’t know and who also won’t have clarity on what they’re doing? I’m not going to do it.”

D.C. Chancellor Michelle Rhee at an Aug. 6, 2007, luncheon meeting at The Washington Times.

The auditing firms hired by the D.C. government to dig inside every aspect of public schools aren’t scheduled to release their findings until October, but that hasn’t left Chancellor Michelle Rhee strumming her desktop. In tackling the failure of the central administration to distribute classroom resources, maintain personnel records and carry out mundane facility repairs, the chancellor has already begun embarking on what will surely be one tough challenge: overhauling personnel rules.

The unions felt threatened before the Fenty administration released any details of its proposal, which will call for legislative action by the D.C. Council. The unions certainly won’t “stand on the sidelines,” as the president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO warned. Moreover, with details sight unseen, council members immediately began expressing reservations. One characterized prospective firings as a “TNT” issue, and another, Harry Thomas Jr., told The Washington Post that he was concerned about employee rights: “Where would they go? What would they do?”

Nothing more eloquently illustrates why personnel rules should be suspended. D.C. workers have the contractual right to fight dismissals and demotions, and more so if they are school employees. For example, employees assigned to the central office have the right to be transferred to lower-ranking jobs and keep their higher salaries. “Bumping rights” enable school employees to bump a more qualified or better-performing employee out of a job. This explains the motive behind Mr. Thomas asking, “Where would they go? What would they do?” Others propose that school officials talk first about severance packages. City Hall must keep in mind that the lack of credible performance — not pay — is the overarching issue.

Equally important is this: Failure to diminish union control over collective bargaining and other workers’ rights issues has severely restricted every school chief in recent years from instituting systemwide reform.

It’s worth noting that initially there were two proposals to revamp schools — one by Mayor Adrian Fenty and the other by the Board of Education. One reason why the council failed to endorse the board’s plan was because it proposed empowering the chancellor with greater flexibility over collective bargaining and because it wanted to more closely align workers’ pay with performance. The mayor, on the other hand, was smart, politically speaking, to avoid detailing such proposals in his legislation — legislation that was subsequently endorsed by the Washington Teachers’ Union and approved by the council.

The revolving door of superintendents over the last 10 years and their failed attempts at reform underscore our point that the chancellor must be given a free hand. The unions and their supporters all say they want what’s best for the children, but every measurable performance standard — from low test scores to employees “who don’t know what their jobs are” to schools with out-of-order toilets and broken mechanical systems — says otherwise — loud and clear.

City Hall is under considerable pressure and burning spotlights to raise academic achievement, substantially streamline the bureaucracy and modernize aging schoolhouses. Proposing to overhaul the convoluted matrix of personnel laws and loosen onerous union demands is crucial to systemwide school reform. The Fenty administration is displaying the political will. The council must collectively flex its muscle and do what is necessary to untie the hands of the chancellor.

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