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Teacher Layoffs in Washington, D.C., Spark Huge Protest

The dismissal of nearly 400 public school employees from the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) brought together students, parents, teachers and school support staff in protest on Oct. 8. Thousands of protesters crowded the city's Freedom Plaza at the "Rally for Respect" to stand with those targeted for dismissal by D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee. In the crowd, rally-goers carried signs with messages such as "Rhee-diculous," "Save our schools" and "How to fix D.C. schools: Fire Rhee," and shouted chants like "1-2-3-4, escort Rhee out the door!"

The Washington Teachers' Union (WTU), along with the AFT and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, organized the "Rally for Respect" after Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty and chancellor Rhee dismissed 388 school employees, including 229 teachers. In early October—just two months after hiring more than 900 new teachers—Fenty and Rhee announced that they needed to lay off teachers and school staff in order to make up for a $43.9 million shortfall in the 2010 budget. Those employees are now on paid administrative leave until Nov. 2.

The shortsighted decision by the mayor and Rhee to lay off employees several weeks into the school year will have serious consequences for students, said WTU president George Parker. "There is no question that firing teachers at this point in the school year has disrupted the teaching and learning process. These cuts have led to increased class sizes and affected the quality of instruction."

Randi Weingarten at WTU rally, photo by Michael Campbell"I've heard the chancellor call the cuts she has made 'right-sizing,' " AFT president Randi Weingarten told the crowd. "Let me tell you: There is nothing right about this situation, because these cuts are hurting kids! This comes down to truth and trust. Students in D.C. schools, teachers, staff and all residents deserve the truth about the school budget and what really led to these cuts."

Newly elected AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka assured teachers and school employees that all of labor would stand with them in their fight. "It's good to know that when you are in a fight, all of us are in it with you," he said. "We will make our voices heard right along side of you."

The WTU has filed a lawsuit against the school district to halt the layoffs and is demanding that the teachers and school staff affected be reinstated, pending the results of a public review of the process in which DCPS hired 936 new educators two months before the layoff.

The WTU also has filed a class action grievance on behalf of all affected teachers and has requested expedited arbitration on the grievance. D.C. City Council chair Vincent Gray has said he plans to hold hearings on whether the layoffs were necessary.

WTU rally photo by Michael Campbell Among those gathered at the rally was Felecia Williams, a high school algebra and geometry teacher who was discharged from Roosevelt High School this month and never told why. Williams says she scored 3.74 out of 4.00 on the new DCPS evaluation, and she was hired by the system just last summer to mentor new teachers. Anything resembling respect and recognition ended last Friday, however, when "I was walked out of the school by a police officer and the dean of students," said the 14-year teaching veteran. "I'm just confused and devastated."

Chyna Branch, an eighth-grader at Takoma Education Center, said she came to the rally to support her teachers. She's not sure how many teachers were let go at her school, but she doesn't want to see any of them leave. "This is a disgrace. Many of our teachers really care, and if they take them out of school what do we have left?"

The rally drew a mix of D.C. residents and parents, as well. Terry Lynch, the father of an 11th-grader at Schools Without Walls Senior High School, came to show his concern that a "top-down" climate that substitutes for cooperation was undermining the public schools. At a minimum, chancellor Rhee's recent job actions were poorly timed, lacked explanation and transparency, and did nothing to build bridges, said Lynch, who is vice president of his school's parent-teacher association. "Somehow we need to bring people together—parents, administrators and teachers."

Paula Chamberlin, a D.C. resident with one niece in the public schools, also came to show her support. "It's just wrong the way they're doing this," Chamberlin said of the mass layoffs, "and I am here to support our children." [photos by Michael Campbell, video by Matt Jones]

October 8, 2009