School & District Management Opinion

Firing the District of Columbia’s Central Office - Or Turning it Into a Political Fiefdom?

December 10, 2007 3 min read

Yesterday, I provided provisions of the District of Columbia Code relevant to the present debate over the status of employees in the DC Public Schools central office. Today, my analysis. It may be somewhat unexpected.How staff are fired today

It would not be surprising for a new Chancellor like Michelle Rhee to decide that some central office staff should be removed - fired - because they don’t do their jobs, don’t buy into the new program, or are in some way corrupt. Under the DC Code Section 1-616.51 this could be accomplished under regulations promulgated by the Mayor, within a few legal constraints.

The staff member would have to removed for reasons identified in the regulations and provided with notice of the reasons before being fired. Normally, the employee should have a written opportunity to be heard prior to separation. However, the Chancellor may remove the staffer immediately “to protect the integrity of government operations.”
Under Section 1-616.52, the employee may appeal the removal to the Office of Employee Appeals, but does not have a right to remain in place.

Why protect government employees?

The effect of these rules is simple – before the Chancellor can fire someone she needs to be sure of her case. She needs to have well-documented grounds for her decision. Why does every government agency in the United States – federal, state and local – have these rules? Because we don’t want every new administration to hire and fire arbitrarily; we want government’s administrative functions to be insulated from electoral politics; we want a check on arbitrary leadership.

What the Mayor and Chancellor want

Rather than finding a few bad apples, the Chancellor seems to have concluded that the overwhelming majority of some 150 central office staff are not competent. Instead of proceeding against each of these employees, she has convinced the Mayor to ask the City Council to give her sole power to decide who will stay or go. In effect, the Mayor’s proposal would separate all of these employees from the system – with severance but without appeal, and the Chancellor would have sole authority to decide whom to rehire. These rehires and anyone hired to fill the spots vacated by those separated from the system would be hired or fired “at-will;” to be precise, at the Chancellor’s will - for any reason, or no reason (except on the basis of age, race, etc). The bill says nothing about the criteria the Chancellor would apply to future terminations for very good reason – if it did, the employment status wouldn’t be “at will.”

A “one-time” option

No one is going to argue that the DC school system is not in a state of emergency. If this mass firing were a one-time event, grounded in an agreement by the City Council that the current staff is so lacking in capacity that the central office should be reconsitituted like a school - with everyone let go, reapplying for their jobs, and subject to the Chancellor’s approval, but NOT as at-will employees - I could probably accept it as a matter of public policy. I would prefer the Chancellor to set up a special unit to gather the evidence identifying the people who should be let go – the absence of this record gives any firing at least the appearance of being arbitrary and capricious. Still, I’ll admit that members of the City Council are far better positioned to judge whether that approach makes less sense and does more damage than tearing the central staff down and starting over. (I hope they have the evidence to make the decision on the merits.) Without the proposal’s at-will provision, a one-time change would solve the immediate problem identified by Chancellor, without too much risk of turning the school system into a political fiefdom for future Mayors.

Why the Mayor didn’t make this limited proposal in the first place is entirely beyond me.

Someone on the City Council should ask.

Thursday: What Do Fenty, Rhee and DCPS reform have to do with the school improvement industry anyway? More than you might think. Please come back and have a look. Tomorrow’s “Letter From” may offer helpful background.

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