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It's Not Over 'Til...: The Continuing Saga of Plans to Fire DC’s Central Office

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The “biz” in edbizbuzz stands for “business” in the broad sense of a “market,” rather than the narrow sense of “vendors.” I tend to pick stories for what they tell us about classes of actors in the school improvement market: for and nonprofit providers as “sellers”, school districts and charter schools as “buyers”, state education agencies and the U.S. Department of Education as “regulators,” along with the executive, legislative and judicial branches; the full range of “investors," from angels to Wall Street; and of course the environmental “surround” of interest groups, philanthropy, media and evaluators that influence market activities.

For example, I’ve written a good deal about SES providers - to explore the issue of “value – results at a price.” Evaluations indicate that the services tend to be quite expensive yet tend to offer improvements in student performance with little educational significance. The series on K12’s IPO was intended to explore the calculations of investors. I’ve started this week to write about the Edvance review of the Texas preschool program - to expand on the issue of Scientifically Based Research and the practical implications of evaluation in an emerging industry like school improvement. I’ve taken the same approach to interest groups, philanthropy and the media.

If this reads like an apologia for what follows, it is. I never intended to get into the District of Columbia Public Schools reorganization mess to the extent I have. I was really drawn into the issue by a Washington Post article on the Chancellor’s public comments about the central office that I found odd to the point of bizarre. I came away with three theories: the Chancellor was quoted out of context by the reporter, was in need of better PR coaching, or made the remarks quite deliberately. I honestly thought it was the first, and was blown away as it became clear that the third theory was on the money.

That drew me into the story in greater detail, and the more I learned, the more I thought that Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s approach, and Mayor Adrian Fenty’s support, offered a great opportunity to explore school district management. Rare are such extreme cases that push the limits of policy and politics and I’ve always thought there’s something important to be learned out on the bleeding edge. And whatever else you might think of these two, their reform strategy is well “out of the box.”

I had intended to drop the story for a while after local media reports of the DC City Council’s December 18 vote implied that the Mayor and Chancellor will get the hire and fire authority they requested, but on reading the bill that actually passed, I can see that a follow up is warranted.

Readers will recall that the Mayor originally asked the Council to give the Chancellor the power to terminate the entire central office staff, and to hire – and fire - a new staff at her will. Although a reader of the Washington Post would not know this, the bill that passed the City Council’s first vote on December 18 (a final vote is scheduled for January 8), is much weaker. The new language offers some insight into the problems created by the arbitrary and capricious nature of the Administration’s approach to management, More important, it underlines the need for those interested in school improvement to a distinguish between importing the very useful tools of business analysis to government and school district operations, and giving politicians and former nonprofit leaders just enough knowledge of business decision making processes to be seriously dangerous.

Below are the key portions of the Public Education Personnel Reform Emergency Amendment Act of 2007 (The Act) that passed on December 18 - with emphasis added. It’s not all that difficult to understand, but it’s a bit long. Read it and then consider my summary. Analysis will follow over the weekend.

Section 903(a)(4) (D.C. Official Code § 1-609.03(a)(4)) is amended to read as

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, rule, or regulation:
“(1) Except for the Chancellor and any Excepted Service employees…. every employee of the District of Columbia Public Schools shall be:
“(A) Classified as an Educational Service employee;
“(B) Placed under the personnel authority of the Mayor; and
“(C) Subject to all rules of the District of Columbia Public Schools….

(a) Section 801A (D.C. Official Code § 1-608.01a) is amended as follows:

“(2)(A)(i) Excluding those employees in a recognized collective bargaining unit, those employees appointed before January 1, 1980, those employees who are based at a local school or who provide direct services to individual students, and those employees required to be excluded pursuant to a court order (collectively, “Excluded Employees”), a person appointed to a position within the Educational Service shall serve without job tenure….

“(B)(i) A person employed within the Educational Service… who is not an Excluded Employee shall be reappointed noncompetitively to the Educational Service, in accordance with subparagraph (A) [see above] of this paragraph. “

(ii) Within 30 days of the effective date of [the Act], the Mayor shall notify in writing each employee of his or her reappointment. The employee shall accept or decline such reappointment within 10 days of receipt of the reappointment notice,

“(iii) A person declining such reappointment shall receive a written 15-day separation notice and shall be entitled to severance….

“(iv) An employee who accepts reappointment who is subsequently terminated shall be terminated in accordance with subparagraph (C)(ii) and (iii) of this paragraph.

“(C)(i) A person employed within the Educational Service… who is not an Excluded Employee, shall be a probationary employee for one year from his or her date of hire (“probationary period”) and may be terminated without notice or evaluation.

“(ii) Following the probationary period, an employee may be terminated, at the discretion of the Mayor; provided, that the employee has been provided a 15-day separation notice and has had at least one evaluation within the preceding 6 months, a minimum of 30 days prior to the issuance of the separation notice.

“(iii) An employee terminated for non-disciplinary reasons may be given severance pay….

“(D) The Mayor may terminate an employee without notice or evaluation who has committed an egregious act. The term “egregious act” shall be defined by rule….

"(E) A terminated employee... shall be separated without competition, assignment
rights, retreat rights, a right to re-assignment... or a right to any internal or administrative review, subject to any right under the Human Rights Act... federal law, or common law....

(I) Within 180 days of the effective date of the [Act] the Mayor shall submit a list to the Council… of those people employed within the Educational Service… as of the effective date of the [Act], who… declined reappointment and were terminated and who accepted reappointment but were subsequently terminated….

"(J)(i) The Mayor shall establish reduction-in-force procedures, including:

“(I) A prescribed order of separation based on District residency and veterans preference;
“(II) Priority reemployment consideration of separated employees; and

“(III) Job sharing and reduced hours; if feasible.

“(ii) Notwithstanding any other provision of law or regulation, an Excluded Employee or a nonschool-based employee shall not be assigned or reassigned to replace a classroom teacher.

“(iii) For the purposes of this subparagraph, the term "reduction in force" means a reduction in personnel, the need for which shall be declared by the Mayor, that is necessary due to a lack of funding or the discontinuance of a department, program, or function of an agency. A reduction in force shall not be considered a punitive or corrective action... and no blemish on an employee's record shall ensue.

Several points about this bill:

1. The prior version specifically permitted the Mayor to delegate any authority granted by the Act to the Chancellor. This version is silent.

2. The prior version terminated every non-Excluded Employee, and then gave the Mayor or Chancellor the right to decide whom to rehire as “at will” employees. This version simply changes the status of all non-Excluded Employees to staff that will serve “without job tenure.” Staff who chose not to accept the change in status have a right to severance pay.

3. Once the transition in status has occurred, the holdover employees can be removed “at the discretion of the Mayor,” but - except where they have committed an “egregious act” - must have 15 days notice and an evaluation no more than 6 months old and no less than 30 days earlier. As with the prior version there is no statement of the grounds for termination that might be embodied in the evaluation.

4. New employees who are not part of this holdover group are probationary employees for one year, during which they may be “terminated without notice or evaluation.”

5. The version passed on December 18 adds provisions on reductions in force at the central office. These permit the Mayor to terminate staff when budget cuts or reorganization eliminate positions. However he must consider job sharing and reduced hours before eliminating positions, can only eliminate people by following an order of separation based on District residency and veterans preferences, and must give laid off employees priority reemployment consideration.

This weekend: What does all this mean?

1 Comment

I'm not convinced that the version that's been preliminarily approved is that much weaker than the original -- but am looking forward to your analysis on this.

Based on the dialogue among the Councilmembers just before their vote, it's my understanding that the required evaluations will have no bearing on terminations (ie, you can get a glowing evaluation and a month later you can be given two weeks notice).

I'm looking forward to your analysis of what if anything the change from "at-will" to "without job tenure" actually did -- again, I thought Councilmembers seemed to be under the impression that this was just semantics.

Councilmember Graham seemed to want SOME protections against arbitrary firings, and Gray said he'd work with him on trying to find some mutually agreeable language, but it seems like that's just what Rhee DOESN'T want, and with a 10-3 vote in favor, it does seem like she'll get what she wants.

The ACLU has an interesting letter posted, opposing this legislation.

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