On the road to a deal: Potholes and gridlock
In mid-June 2009, it looked like the District and the Washington Teachers' Union (WTU) were finally close to a contract. Mediator Kurt Schmoke had every reason to believe he was done. After two months of mediating the stalemated talks that began in November 2007, there were agreements on the biggest, most problematic matters, dubbed "tier three" issues. These included a new performance pay system and "performance-based excessing," contractual jargon for trimming teachers from under-enrolled or reorganizing schools on basis of quality, not seniority.
The remaining items, relegated to tiers one and twos, were regarded as "low-hanging fruit," expected to move quickly to resolution without his prodding. These were items such as pay for coaches, contract language on teacher professional development and grievance procedures. On June 17, the former three-term mayor of Baltimore attended his final bargaining session and returned to his day job as dean of the Howard University School of Law.
But, like Michael Corleone in "Godfather III," just when he thought he was out, he got pulled back in. In mid-July, he received a call from AFT president Randi Weingarten and deputy chancellor Kaya Henderson, the District's lead negotiator, asking if he was available to return. The problem: what was agreed to in principle had proven impossible to commit to paper; and the low-hanging fruit was actually on branches that were out of reach.
It would be close to Christmas before Schmoke was really finished, and March 2010 before the deal was actually signed. He stopped counting his hours spent on the deal (his fee was $400 per, split by the two sides) when he hit 132. He's not sure of the actual total, but certain that it was far more.
His multiple interventions were just one remarkable feature of an odyssey that began with a color-coded salary schedule and ended with a contract ratified by the union last week. The D.C. Council will take it up for final approval on June 29.
So what took so long?
With the accord in hand, some of the major players are more willing to talk about what happened. Some, like Schmoke, spoke for the record. Others on both sides of the table still insisted on anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issues.
The answer to the question is multi-layered. The union's intense distrust of Rhee--only deepened by a series of decisions and statements made outside the negotiating room--slowed, and even froze the talks at several points. Leaders on both sides were also constantly aware of the national audience watching the progress of the negotiations, a level of scrutiny that seemed by turns energizing and paralytic. Through it all, however, Schmoke said he knew where both Rhee and Weingarten "wanted to come out" at the end of the day.
Weingarten, he said, "wanted a document that really showed that the system respected teachers, so that they are not all painted with an 'ineffective' brush. She was very skeptical of Michelle's motives. She thought that Michelle was trying everything she could to get rid of older teachers and bring in younger ones." Rhee has consistently denied this charge.
As for the chancellor, "she really thought that providing people incentives was going to improve teaching performance," Schmoke said. "She really did believe that. She has a high regard for the academic ability of children, and felt that there needed to be incentives placed in front of teachers to progress."
And, despite the views of some teachers, he said, "I didn't view her as a union buster."
Rhee said the experience has left her a new appreciation for collective bargaining. This is from a leader who once discussed by-passing negotiations entirely and who told a group of education reporters at a 2008 roundtable: "People tell me the unions are an inevitable part of this [school reform]. My thing is, what has that gotten us so far? All the collaboration and holding hands and singing 'Kumbaya'?"
"I think this was an interesting study in how the collective bargaining process can work," she said. "Though it was long and sometimes a little more arduous than we had hoped, we came out of this with an agreement we're pleased with and that I think think the union is very pleased with."
While the prevailing view is that Rhee got far more than she gave up, Weingarten disagrees.
"Both sides got a lot out of this deal," she said. "What happens is that you have a lot of people out there talking about what Michelle got because they are invested in her being successful. The union was talking about what it needed for its members to be successful."
Rhee said there is "no other contract that comes close" to the District's in what it allowed her to do on the personnel front. "And hopefully it will be outdated in a short while," she said. "By the time we renegotiate [in 2012] hopefully some other school district has pushed the envelope further and given us ideas about what to pursue in the next contract."
Some other nuggets from interviews conducted during and after the marathon talks:
Better dead than red-green: Rhee was convinced in the summer of 2008 that the union would leap at her two-tiered "red-green" salary proposal that offered the biggest paydays to teachers willing to relinquish tenure for a year. Veteran teacher Emily Washington, a member of the WTU's bargaining committee until she resigned in frustration that year, remembers Rhee urging union leaders to secure membership approval before the AFT's national convention in Chicago. "So, we've got to get this thing done before you go the convention," Washington remembers Rhee saying, so that others wouldn't weigh in to dissuade them. But the pay plan never came to a vote, AFT officials said, because it wasn't supported by a fully formed contract.
Rhee's staff said she has no recollection of this conversation.
Back to square one, again: After working into July and August of 2009, Schmoke thought the two sides were once again close to wrapping up a deal. Plans were even discussed to roll out details to teachers at the beginning of the school year. But on August 17, Jason Kamras, Rhee's director of "teacher human capital" and member of the negotiating team, came to a session at AFT headquarters with a long list of changes in items that union leaders said they thought had been settled. Even Schmoke was surprised.
"It was Jason's take on language that Kaya [Henderson] had agreed to," Schmoke said. "It was using flowery language where you didn't need it."
Kamras said he remembers it differently--that he was trying to restore and clarify items that had been rewritten by the union. "My intent was to reflect agreements I believed we had come to on many of these issues." In any event, the talks continued to grind on through the summer and early fall.
Among the points of contention: how the contract would be published. WTU president George Parker was unhappy with Kamras' attempt to revise and reorganize the format of the old contract. But Parker wanted it in recognizable form for his members.
"The big waltz:" That was Schmoke's term for the problem posed by Rhee's new IMPACT teacher evaluation system. While she was not legally required to bargain the system with the teachers, it loomed large in the contract, touching issues like performance based excessing and eligibility for buyouts. Union leaders disliked IMPACT, which will make some educators accountable for growth in test scores using a "value added" methodology they say is not reliable. But each time talks drifted close to the specifics, DCPS general counsel James Sandman would bring the hammer down.
"They took the position that because teacher evaluation was a management right, it appeared that their approach was, we don't have to discuss this with you," Parker said. The eventual solution was a series of "side letters" to the contract, promising an independent assessment of IMPACT and a joint working group to sort out teacher complaints.
RIF rancor: Rhee's decision to lay off 266 teachers in October 2009 because of what she described as a budget crunch infuriated union leaders, who claimed they had no inkling of what was coming. Anger over the sudden reduction in force (RIF) essentially froze talks through the fall. Schmoke said he was reduced to his "mini-Kissinger act," meeting with Rhee and Weingarten separately in their offices and sending e-mails to re-start the conversation.
What astonished him, he said, was Rhee's contention that the RIF was a separate issue with no bearing on the progress of the talks.
"She thought you could look at these issues in silos, that they were separate matters," said Schmoke, who at one point took her aside and tried to explain that as a practical political matter, it was all connected. He said he told Rhee: "One thing I learned as mayor, that perception is reality."
Not all vitriol: District officials said stories of high emotions and angry confrontations in negotiating sessions were overblown. Kamras recalled one point in the talks when he invited Parker to his apartment so that the two could work without the usual distractions.
"We spent a number of days, just George and me, sitting around my kitchen table working through the language and chatting about life," said Kamras, who made a point of stocking his refrigerator with apple juice, Parker's favorite drink.
"Long after this is all over, I'll never forget our wonderful conversations about the contract, education, our respective teaching careers, our families, and our childhoods all over two glasses of apple juice," he said.
Dances with donors: After a seven-hour meeting in mid-December ended with handshakes and high-fives, the talks were over in earnest. But the tentative agreement wasn't complete because Rhee had to sell the deal to the private foundations needed to help finance the contract's rich financial package, including a 21.6 percent raise and the performance pay plan.
In 2008, Rhee said the commitments were firm. But the length of the talks had taken a toll.
"Apparently [the foundations] were a little more difficult than she anticipated," Schmoke said.
Rhee said that because of confidentiality agreements, she was limited in what she could tell private funders at the Broad, Robertson, Walton and Arnold foundations about the talks while they were ongoing.
"The donors were waiting for a long time. They thought we were going to do this in July of 08," Rhee said. By the time a deal was finally at hand, she said, the funders didn't feel compelled to rush.
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June 10, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
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