Washington Teachers' Union President Lauds Arbitrator Ruling

Barrington M. Salmon | 10/12/2011, 12:42 p.m.

Washington Teachers' Union President Nathan A. Saunders is exultant and enjoying vindication brought by an arbitrator's recent ruling ordering District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) to rehire 75 teachers.

Arbitrator Charles Feigenbaum found the teachers were not granted due process and were not afforded the basic and fundamental right to defend themselves against charges. He awarded the teachers their jobs with back pay. The Public Employees Relations Board (PERB) also upheld the arbitrator's ruling and dismissed a request by school officials to set aside the arbitration award.

"[This ruling] is incredibly important in the context that we remain accurate in forecasting these employment events," said Saunders. "There was no reason that the arbitrator would be overruled, so an appeal is wasted time and wasted resources. These terminations will not stand against the WTU because we will fight."

Saunders said these cases could be resolved if DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Mayor Vincent Gray were willing to sit face-to-face with union officials and thrash out the various problems and issues.

"This is the method the mayor can use to reduce legal costs and put good teachers back in the classrooms. All they need to do is sit down and talk to us. It's less about poor teaching and more about politics. They are making political statements in the arena of education," Saunders said.

DCPS Director of Communications Hassan Charles said school officials could not comment on the ruling and remain under the continuing advisement of Schools General Counsel Robert Utiger. According to Charles, a school official or Utiger will provide comment once DCPS determines its next course of action.

Saunders said the case that went before the arbitrator is one of several under consideration at various levels of the legal and arbitration process.

"Seventy-five teachers were fired, but we're looking at the restoration of about 180 teachers. The order required the teachers to be rehired immediately, but the law allows them to consider DCPS's appeal. It's like pushing a camel through the eye of the needle," said Saunders. "The higher you go [in court], the more difficult it is. There are a number of cases of wrongful termination that are now being upheld in courts. Once we get away from political rhetoric, we can see the cases for what they really are. [Former Schools Chancellor Michelle] Rhee and [former Mayor Adrian] Fenty are being proved wrong again and again."

Saunders said he expects school officials to appeal this ruling as they have done in the past and chided them for taking a "legal path that continues to become narrower and more expensive at each juncture DCPS decides to fight over its mistakes rather than correct them."

"As a teacher myself," he said. "I find it unconscionable that the chancellor and mayor are modeling behavior that resists being objectively reviewed through an arbitration system that DCPS designed and agreed to with the union rather than accepting and fixing the mistakes that Chancellor Rhee made."

On February 28, 2011, DCPS filed an arbitration request review of Feigenbaum's ruling that upheld the WTU's grievance filed on behalf of 80 teachers who at the time of their dismissal were on probation. DCPS used a new initiative requiring principals to recommend renewal or non-renewal for all teachers on probation via a website. If a teacher's contract was not going to be renewed, principals were required to send a one-page narrative explaining his or her recommendation.