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Firing the District of Columbia's Central Office - Or Turning it Into a Political Fiefdom?


Yesterday, I provided provisions of the District of Columbia Code relevant to the present debate over the status of employees in the DC Public Schools central office. Today, my analysis. It may be somewhat unexpected.

How staff are fired today

It would not be surprising for a new Chancellor like Michelle Rhee to decide that some central office staff should be removed - fired - because they don’t do their jobs, don’t buy into the new program, or are in some way corrupt. Under the DC Code Section 1-616.51 this could be accomplished under regulations promulgated by the Mayor, within a few legal constraints.

The staff member would have to removed for reasons identified in the regulations and provided with notice of the reasons before being fired. Normally, the employee should have a written opportunity to be heard prior to separation. However, the Chancellor may remove the staffer immediately “to protect the integrity of government operations.”
Under Section 1-616.52, the employee may appeal the removal to the Office of Employee Appeals, but does not have a right to remain in place.

Why protect government employees?

The effect of these rules is simple – before the Chancellor can fire someone she needs to be sure of her case. She needs to have well-documented grounds for her decision. Why does every government agency in the United States – federal, state and local – have these rules? Because we don’t want every new administration to hire and fire arbitrarily; we want government’s administrative functions to be insulated from electoral politics; we want a check on arbitrary leadership.

What the Mayor and Chancellor want

Rather than finding a few bad apples, the Chancellor seems to have concluded that the overwhelming majority of some 150 central office staff are not competent. Instead of proceeding against each of these employees, she has convinced the Mayor to ask the City Council to give her sole power to decide who will stay or go. In effect, the Mayor’s proposal would separate all of these employees from the system – with severance but without appeal, and the Chancellor would have sole authority to decide whom to rehire. These rehires and anyone hired to fill the spots vacated by those separated from the system would be hired or fired “at-will;” to be precise, at the Chancellor's will - for any reason, or no reason (except on the basis of age, race, etc). The bill says nothing about the criteria the Chancellor would apply to future terminations for very good reason – if it did, the employment status wouldn’t be “at will.”

A “one-time” option

No one is going to argue that the DC school system is not in a state of emergency. If this mass firing were a one-time event, grounded in an agreement by the City Council that the current staff is so lacking in capacity that the central office should be reconsitituted like a school - with everyone let go, reapplying for their jobs, and subject to the Chancellor’s approval, but NOT as at-will employees - I could probably accept it as a matter of public policy. I would prefer the Chancellor to set up a special unit to gather the evidence identifying the people who should be let go – the absence of this record gives any firing at least the appearance of being arbitrary and capricious. Still, I’ll admit that members of the City Council are far better positioned to judge whether that approach makes less sense and does more damage than tearing the central staff down and starting over. (I hope they have the evidence to make the decision on the merits.) Without the proposal's at-will provision, a one-time change would solve the immediate problem identified by Chancellor, without too much risk of turning the school system into a political fiefdom for future Mayors.

Why the Mayor didn’t make this limited proposal in the first place is entirely beyond me.

Someone on the City Council should ask.

Thursday: What Do Fenty, Rhee and DCPS reform have to do with the school improvement industry anyway? More than you might think. Please come back and have a look. Tomorrow's "Letter From" may offer helpful background.


Maybe this is implicit in the notion of a political fiefdom, but silencing dissent may be as much an issue here as spoils system.

Frankly, Rhee seems more oriented toward PR than toward education and that means that tight control of information and suppression of alternative viewpoints from within the system will be vital to her "success" as Chancellor.

Purge and/or ignore the people with experience, hire your friends for big bucks, and make sure that everyone knows that his or her job depends on keeping you happy (rather than doing the right thing) -- that seems to be Rhee's approach and it's not a promising one.

I recognize that this blogger is opposed to the style of change taking place in the DCPS central office. While I agree that the "purge" issue should perhaps be a one-time issue, I strongly believe that administrators deserve the ability to hire and fire. People working in the public sector are held to this sort of productivity incentive. There is no logical reason that bureacrats in this incredibly inefficient central office should be above this situation. Their expertise is clearly not effective; let Rhee try her hand at hiring more effective public servants.

The last time a D.C. official had such authority, CFO Tony Williams gave pink slips to some 200 people, including 165 in one day alone in 1997. The outcome is, of course, up for debate. Though it ultimately led to his election as Mayor, so perhaps Fenty should beware that Rhee may unseat him if her mass firing is successful!

Your one-time approach is enticing, but how do you do it when hiring is not an instantaneous event? E.g. even the ones you want to re-hire are going to have to publicly compete for the positions.

Michelle Rhee: Savior or Grinch?

While it remains to be seen whether DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee will judiciously use the powers granted to her under the soon-to-be-enacted Public Education Personnel Reform Amendment Act of 2007, little attention is being paid to the financial and other costs of DCPS's continuing failure to comply with court orders and settlement agreements. During the Janey administration and now during Ms. Rhee's, DCPS has engaged in a pattern and practice of failing to comply with binding settlement agreements or with final administrative and court orders. These settlement agreements and court orders are the result of cases brought by career DCPS employees who were summarily dismissed without any basis whatsoever and without being afforded the due process that D.C. law and regulations require. It is this type of arbitrary conduct that Councilman Thomas and Mendleson cautioned against and why they could not, in good conscience, vote in favor of the bill. Only time will tell whether Ms. Rhee will ask the Mayor to terminate DCPS employees with good evaluations -- something that the current version of the proposed legislation gives Mr. Fenty the unfettered discretion to do.

Last week, DCPS failed to remit payment of the back pay and other compensation owed to Roger Asterilla in accordance with a settlement agreement signed by Dr. Thelma Monk, Acting Director of Human Resources. Mr. Asterilla is a career DCPS employee who was improperly terminated without notice or basis during May 2005. DCPS did not officially notify Mr. Asterilla that he had been terminated until May 2007 -- almost two years later and only after the D.C. Office of Employee Appeals concluded that it never notified him that he had been terminated. While Mr. Asterilla finally resumed work at DCPS during late November, DCPS did not timely restore his health coverage and now is depriving him of badly needed funds which his two minor children are dependent on. Aside from hurting Mr. Asterilla and his family, these failures will also indirectly have an effect on the District’s schoolchildren, as DCPS is obligated to pay Mr. Asterilla interest and attorneys' fees and costs.

Mr. Asterilla wrote to Chancellor Rhee last week asking for help. Ms. Rhee passed the buck and directed Deputy Chancellor Kiya Henderson to look into the matter. Of course, nothing has been done as DCPS’s leadership appears to be singularly focused on obtaining new and wide-ranging powers. As a result of DCPS dropping the ball yet again, Mr. Asterilla and his children will not be experiencing a Merry Christmas.

It remains to be seen which of Ms. Rhee's hand-selected, highly-paid associates is responsible for dropping the ball in the Asterilla matter and whether she will take any action against them. Chances are that she'll do nothing and instead focus solely on using her new powers by capriciously terminating those hard-working, long-time Central Office employees without regard to their qualifications, experience or job performance. Perhaps Ms. Henderson's head should be the first one on Ms. Rhee's chopping block in January.

But what about Mr. Asterilla and his children? Ms. Rhee's inaction is tantamount to sending the Asterilla children a lump of coal as a Christmas present. Clearly no one at 825 N Capitol remembers the reason for the season.

In the interest of full disclosure, I represented Mr. Asterilla in OEA proceedings and currently represent him in his Superior Court lawsuit.

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