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Ruling on D.C. Fired Personnel Set for 2011

James Wright | 11/3/2010, 2:56 p.m.

A D.C. Superior Court judge has opted to rule on the validity of the firing of D.C. school teachers in 2009 early next year. D.C. Superior Court Associate Judge Judith Bartnoff held a status hearing on Fri., Oct. 29 at the D.C. courthouse in Northwest to determine whether then D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee wrongfully fired 266 educators last October because of budgetary concerns.

The organization representing the fired teachers -- The Fight for Fired D.C. Personnel -- had several of its members in the judge's courtroom to show that they want their jobs back.

"The question here is did the District of Columbia have reason to believe whether there was a budget shortfall which led to the RIFS (reductions in force)," said Bartnoff, who was appointed to the D.C. Superior Court by President Bill Clinton in 1994.

A status hearing is held when a case is preparing for trial and the judge makes a determination with the contesting parties whether the case should go to trial.

In November 2009, Bartnoff denied the Washington Teachers Union's motion for an injunction, which would have stopped the terminations from proceeding. In April, she allowed the matter to go further when the attorneys from the WTU said that Rhee had additional monies in her budget, approximately $34 million, and it was not clear whether Rhee let go of the teachers with the knowledge that the school system had enough money to keep them.

As a result, Bartnoff then ordered the dismissed schools personnel case to proceed to conduct "limited" discovery, which means that the union could conduct further research to find out about the situation regarding the $34 million.

The union's attorney, Brenda Zwack, told Bartnoff at the hearing that she and her clients reviewed 1,200 pages of budget documents and e-mails but could find nothing that would have allowed the case to proceed.

Bartnoff, in a move that is unusual for a judge, noted the presence of The Fired Personnel organization and said "all these people are here and we're going to send them home." Bartnoff inferred that members of the organization were not going to get what they wanted, which was a court date for a trial on the matter.

Willie Brewer, executive director of The Fight for Fired D.C. Personnel and former WTU executive board was somewhat disappointed by Bartnoff's actions.

"The union's attorneys did not reveal any findings from discovery which stated that the school system's actions were not arbitrary," Brewer, 54, said. "They have stopped discovery but the case has not been dismissed."

Brewer revealed in a previous interview that his organization would like to have their own counsel, instead of relying on the union. He said that has made calls to the NAACP and other legal organizations to see if the organization can be represented pro bono or without a fee.

"We even made a call to the Johnnie Cochran law firm," he said.

Brewer said that many of his members are either on unemployment, working part-time, have found teaching positions or are currently working in other fields. He said that he did not know what the next step would be.

D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray (D), the presumptive mayor-elect, has not gotten involved in the matter. Brewer said that he talked with Gray earlier this year but they have not met since.

However, a spokeswoman for Gray said that the dismissed teachers are largely on their own. She said that the laid-off teachers who had received good evaluations are eligible to reapply for positions in the school system as they become available.

"Those deemed to be effective should have an opportunity to be considered for future jobs," Doxie McCoy said.