Judge To Rule Next Week On Teacher Layoffs
After listening to more than six hours of testimony and argument Thursday, D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff said she would rule "sometime next week" on the Washington Teachers' Union's (WTU) bid to roll back the layoffs of 266 DCPS teachers and staff.
WTU is seeking an injunction that returns the teachers to their jobs until an arbitrator can rule on the case. It contends that the layoffs are an illegal mass firing and that the budget crunch cited by Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee as the basis for the reductions is a sham, designed as a pretext for dumping older teachers. The union also says that school officials violated the collective bargaining agreement by failing to adequately consult with it ahead of time.
Union attorney Lee Jackson cast the layoffs as part of a long range plan by Rhee to secure by fiat what she was not able to attain at the bargaining table.
"This is union busting in the worst possible way," he said.
D.C. attorney Robert Utiger warned that should Bartnoff reinstate the teachers, DCPS would be facing a new budget imbalance that could force another, possibly more extensive, round of layoffs. Lisa Ruda, Rhee's chief of staff and one of the District's two witnesses, said it could possibly involve large numbers of other school system employees, although she didn't specify.
The union had failed to meet the multi-pronged test for winning an injunction that freezes the layoffs, Utiger said. It includes a substantial likelihood that the union could succeed in arbitration; that the teachers and the union will suffer irreparable harm without a favorable ruling, and that that the public interest will not be damaged by an injunction.
Utiger said District law gives Rhee unquestioned managerial authority to impose the layoffs, and that terminations resulting from budget shortages are not eligible for arbitration. He also asserted that while it is regrettable that teachers lost their jobs, loss of wages does not constitute irreparable harm. Finally, he said that DCPS students would suffer more harm than benefit by having their school lives scrambled once again by the return of teachers who have been gone for more than a month.
While it's always risky business to predict how a judge might rule based on the tone and tenor of her questions, Bartnoff sent some pretty serious signals that she didn't think much of the union's case. She made it clear from the outset that this would not be an exercise in second-guessing Rhee's decision.
"There may be a lot of people around who want to run the school system. I'm not one of them," said Bartnoff, a 1994 Clinton appointee to the bench who ruled against Roy Pearson in the famous $54 million "lost pants" case.
Jackson put on five witnesses: a senior union official (field representative Mary Collins), two laid off teachers (former Coolidge counselor Emyrtle Bennett and former Sharpe Health special education teacher Maurice Asuquo, one of the school system's only blind instructors) D.C. Congress of PTA president Gwendolyn Griffin and WTU president George Parker. There were intriguing bits and pieces, but nothing that helped to prove the union's basic arguments.
One surprise was when Utiger mentioned that there had been some brief discussion about a union proposal to use unpaid teacher furloughs in lieu of layoffs. Utiger said that for the furloughs to generate the required savings, they would have they would have to total about 28 days per instructor, a period that would be impractical and disruptive to schools. Parker said in his testimony that furloughs were never a union proposal, but merely an off-hand query from his chief of staff, Clay White.
One new demographic nugget about the 934 teachers hired by DCPS this spring and summer: Ruda said on cross-examination that about half of the new instructors had five years or more experience, refuting the notion that they were all newbies fresh from teachers college or training programs.
Correction: DCPS spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said Friday morning that Ruda's testimony was actually that over half of the 934 had some prior experience and just over 30 percent had five years or more.
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