Teachers' Fret What does the feud atop the WTU mena for DCPS reform?

Rank and Bile: Parker, the WTU’s president, is under fire from within.
Darrow Montgomery

The Washington Teachers’ Union has a bad reputation when it comes to finances. Remember Barbara Bullock? As union president, she plundered the WTU treasury for upward of $5 million to finance shopping trips to Neiman Marcus and other high-end retailers for her and her cronies—a fraud that landed her in prison after she was caught in 2002.

And it’s happening again, if you believe a lawsuit filed in federal court on Monday.

The author of the allegations is Nathan A. Saunders, the WTU’s general vice president. He says that two of the union’s top dogs—President George Parker and his chief of staff, Clay White—“embezzled, stole, or unlawfully and willfully converted WTU money and funds to their own use or the use of others.” Specifically, Saunders alleges a “diversion of WTU funds, through an out of state company, to a family member [of White’s] over a protracted period of time,” as well as an “undecipherable $10,000 finder’s fee” attached to a rental contract.

Don’t expect search warrants, FBI raids, and front-page Washington Post stories on this one: Saunders provides little documentation of these offenses in his 47-page complaint, which lists as defendants Parker, White, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, agents of the American Federation of Teachers (the WTU’s parent union), and other various WTU board members and DCPS employees.

Yet the suit, which claims numerous other offenses, lays bare a rift in a key opposition organ to the reform plans of Fenty and Rhee. As Hizzoner’s hand-picked “change agent,” Rhee has an agenda loaded with bureaucratic TNT, the better to blow up a system that has failed schoolchildren for decades. Thus far, no polity has been able to derail any significant Rhee initiative, whether school closings or central office firings or budget reform.

And, with a schism at its top, don’t expect the WTU to fill that void anytime soon.

The divisions had spilled into public view even before Saunders’ lawsuit. For instance, on April 10, Fenty and Rhee held a press conference to announce the details of a “Teacher Transition Award” program. That would be a fancy name for buyouts—buyouts intended to clear out stodgy old teachers to make way for youngsters on board with her fast-paced reforms. Or just the sort of thing your average teachers’ union might have a wee bit of a problem with.

White came to the presser with a statement supporting the program, a development that horrified Saunders. “I was aghast,” he recalls. For a hard-liner like Saunders, the union’s endorsement of the buyouts was an unconscionable sellout.

Saunders asked White about Parker’s whereabouts; he was sick, White said. After trying to reach Parker by phone several times, Saunders claimed authority as an elected union official to speak for the union over an unelected staffer. “Stand down,” he told White, who declined to do so. Saunders demanded the same twice more.

“That’s like a military term, meaning, ‘I’m in charge, and I’ll handle this situation.’” Saunders says later.

The standoff continued through the start of the press conference. Saunders eventually relented, and White delivered the statement. The result: In the next day’s Washington Post, White’s statement of support, however lukewarm, was juxtaposed with Saunders speaking out against it.

Parker and Saunders were both elected in 2005 at the top of the first slate to be chosen since the Bullock scandal sent the WTU into receivership. But from the beginning, Saunders says, the ticket was a marriage of convenience, not the product of any great love between the two. “George and I were never in the same camp, you understand. Absolutely never,” he says.

Differences of philosophy, Saunders says, have existed “since Day 1.” To speak in generalities, Parker has shown a willingness to work with Fenty and Rhee on possible reforms (cover story, “Union Jacked,” 7/27/2007). Saunders, on the other hand, has stuck to a tough line on protecting teachers’ contractual rights. The differences extend to personal style, as well: Saunders is outgoing, often seen making the rounds at educational and political events; Parker is more retiring and tends to operate behind the scenes.

Take Rhee’s efforts last fall to eliminate nonunion central office staff by reclassifying them as “at-will” employees (cover story, “The Office,” 11/16/2007). According to Saunders’ lawsuit, Parker was “personally supportive” of Rhee’s move, even though it seemed to other labor leaders as a potential first strike against union interests. Parker’s point of view, Saunders says, was overruled by the WTU delegate assembly, which voted overwhelmingly to oppose the measure, essentially forcing the union leadership to follow.

But when Saunders was scheduled to appear on WPFW-FM shortly thereafter to slam the at-will measure, Parker ordered him not to go on, according to the suit. Saunders went on the radio anyway. That led to attempts at a December executive board meeting to pass a resolution that would effectively stop Saunders from speaking out of school; the motion failed, according to the complaint. Despite that, Parker issued a memo outlining a new media policy—that the only “official” WTU position can come through the union’s communications staff.

The lawsuit also alleges that Parker got personal: One day, Saunders alleges, he came into his office, separated from Parker’s by only a thin wall, to overhear a speakerphone conversation between Parker and Al Squires, a top officer with the American Federation of Teachers. In that phone call, he alleges, Parker discusses having his DCPS “contacts” meddle with Saunders’ personnel records in such a way that would make him ineligible for union office.

Throughout the suit, Saunders portrays himself as a principled guy standing up for his members, speaking his mind, refusing to sign questionable checks or parrot statements he doesn’t agree with. Whether that’s true or not, there is some reason to take him seriously: Saunders has successfully sued his own union before. Back in 2002, Saunders came to prominence by discovering Bullock & Co.’s graft on his own and suing the WTU and the AFT leadership for financial mismanagement, resulting in a settlement. Some of the counts in Saunders’ latest lawsuit might seem farfetched—racketeering charges, for instance—but he has a healthy amount of case law on his side when it comes to having his free-speech rights squelched.

What’s going to be hard to prove are his charges of “collusion” between Parker and the Fenty/Rhee regime. Saunders’ suit gives a few examples. Last summer, for instance, teachers at Whittier Elementary in Manor Park were pissed at a controversial principal and threatened to walk off the job. At a meeting with Rhee before the school year started, Saunders says, the chancellor passed him a note saying that Parker had agreed the principal could stay at Whittier. Saunders says he essentially wrote back “over my dead body,” then he and Parker had it out later that day at the WTU offices.

The latest instance, Saunders says, is a memorandum of agreement signed by Parker and Rhee on April 18. The document outlines the process for moving teachers from closed schools—the practice in the past has been that teachers follow their students; under the agreement, teachers will have to interview with principals for jobs at those schools (the teachers are still guaranteed positions somewhere in the system).

It’s a move in keeping with contractual provisions that Rhee has advocated in the past—in particular, overturning the seniority system that governs teacher transfers—and Saunders says the agreement foreshadows provisions in the new teacher contract, which has been under negotiation by Parker and his team since the last contract expired in October. “Based on what I’m seeing...that’s a first look into the contract, if you ask me,” Saunders says. “It certainly suggests to me that George has acquiesced.”

Reached by phone on Monday, Parker declined to comment on the lawsuit or his relationship with Saunders. “I’m not aware of the lawsuit,” he said. “I don’t know what the content is so I have no comment”; for similar reasons, DCPS spokesperson Mafara Hobson also declined to comment on behalf of Rhee.

What Saunders sees as collusion, of course, might seem to plenty of other observers as a good-faith willingness to improve a school system that’s obviously failed for too long—or, more cynically, a necessary bow to political reality in a town where Rhee’s take-no-prisoners style has thus far carried the day.

But Saunders has no qualms about outflanking Parker, saying he has considerable support among the union’s executive board and the rank and file. Such political concerns, though, aren’t on his radar, he says: “This ain’t about a damn popularity contest....The WTU members can decide whether they want a weak-ass union or a strong one. And if they want a weak union, then I ain’t the guy to lead it. If you want a strong one, then I’m your guy.”

Brown Is Down With Council Run

Michael A. Brown filed his papers Tuesday to officially enter the race for an at-large D.C. Council seat as an independent. He’ll be facing longtime incumbent Carol Schwartz, as well as motivated challengers Adam Clampitt and Dee Hunter, in November for the non-Democratic slot.

Brown, son of legendary Democratic honcho Ron Brown and veteran of failed runs for mayor and Ward 4 councilmember, spent almost two months pondering his run on an exploratory basis. Brown says he’s really done his homework this time. “It’s been all scientific,” he says. “When I ran for mayor, it was kind of on gut. Ward 4 council—that was half gut, half scientific.”

His key issues are a bit of a reprise from his mayoral run, where he made youth issues a centerpiece of his campaign. This time, Brown says, he’ll be focused on the disposition of closed school buildings—“I am not a proponent of selling every asset we have for condo development. There is no reason those assets shouldn’t be turned into libraries, vocational centers, senior centers”—as well as a “lack of opportunity” for youth.

In addition, Brown—who has a background in municipal finance—says he’s concerned about the District’s debt load and advocates refinancing bond issues for the baseball stadium and the convention center. “We need to take advantage of the rates now, get the payments down,” he says.

A big question is whether Brown, 42, is willing to give up his lucrative lobbying gig to be a full-time councilmember—a pledge so far given by all his opponents. He recently left the lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay to join Boston-based Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge.

“I haven’t made that assessment,” Brown says, citing a need to speak with current councilmembers with side gigs such as Ward 2’s Jack Evans and at-large member David A. Catania about their experiences. “My first priority will be the people of the District of Columbia.”

Brown says he has no events planned until later next month, when he will conduct an eight-ward “whistle-stop tour” on Metro—another retread from his mayoral run.

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Oh no, another run for office by Michael Brown. Poor guy. It's never going to happen.

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