School & District Management

Members of Two Minds Over Union Leader In D.C.

By Vaishali Honawar — February 13, 2007 2 min read
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Members of the Washington Teachers’ Union, another local union that is trying to rebuild following a leadership scandal, express mixed feelings about President George Parker, who has been leading the organization since 2005.

While some members of the District of Columbia union give Mr. Parker points for reaching out and giving them a greater voice in union issues, others say attempts to gain access to some financial information have been blocked repeatedly.

Financial transparency is important to WTU members. Former President Barbara A. Bullock was sent to prison for masterminding a scam, along with two of her aides, to embezzle more than $4.5 million from the union. Ms. Bullock used the money to buy herself furs and jewelry, among other luxuries.

The American Federation of Teachers took over the union in 2003, installing an administrator, the late George Springer. The union returned to local control when Mr. Parker was elected.

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Since then, there has been some change in the right direction, members say. A new contract was negotiated last year, and the union now has a representative assembly that met for the first time in September.

But membership is at a low point. The union has 4,400 members; in 2003—a year after the scandal broke—there were 5,000.

“The practice of having a representative assembly, in which all schools are represented in proportion to the size of their union memberships, with monthly meetings, has helped to open up the lines of communication,” said Robert Zugby, a teacher and building representative at Wilson High School.

Mr. Parker also keeps in touch with members through frequent automated telephone messages and e-mail, he added.

‘Still in Dark’

Mr. Parker last year negotiated with the 58,000-student District of Columbia school district a contract retroactive to 2004. The agreement includes performance pay for teachers at some schools, and increases starting pay for teachers from $39,000 to $42,500 a year. The salary for teachers at the top of the scale would rise from $75,000 to $87,000 over three years.

But some teachers were upset because the contract added a half-hour to each day for planning and four additional days for training.

“Many of the teachers did not realize that was in the contract until much later,” said Laureen Smith-Butler, a teacher at Spingarn High School.

Ms. Smith-Butler also faulted the union for stalling for several months last year when she and other members asked for financial information dating back to Mr. Springer’s days.

“We are still in the dark about money issues,” she said, adding that officials have so far failed to give them answers on financial questions they have raised.

Mr. Parker did not keep several interview appointments with Education Week and could not be reached for comment before deadline.

Still, some members credit Mr. Parker with being accessible to them.

“He is good at communications, meeting with us, keeping us abreast of what’s going on,” said Tanya Copeland, a teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School.

Mr. Zugby pointed to other provisions in the contract that have been helpful to teachers, such as the creation of professional-development committees and provisions that call for more schools that would experiment with approaches to provide education—although that latter project, Mr. Zugby wrote in an e-mail, is yet to take off.

“Of course, there is still room for improvement, and the leadership is too new in office to be certain that these trends will continue,” he said, “but the prognosis at this point seems to be promising.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 14, 2007 edition of Education Week as Members of Two Minds Over Union Leader in D.C.

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