Monday, March 10, 2008

Rhee Cans Almost 100

DC Chancellor Michelle Rhee sacked 98 central office employees at the DC Public schoosl,the first mass firing in a decade (which says something in itself). Here is one story:
One senior manager, a five-year veteran of the school system, said that Deputy Chancellor Kaya Henderson stepped into his office about 1 p.m. and told him he was dismissed.

She said, " 'I have some bad news -- you're being terminated,' and handed me a letter. I asked her what was the reason for the termination, and all she said was, the personnel act allows it," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

The man said he asked whether he could notify his staff but was told he could not. He said he was told to "get my personal stuff and leave," he added. "I was out of the office in 20 minutes."

The fired workers will be on paid administrative leave until March 22, the letter says. They were told to collect their belongings and were escorted out of the headquarters, at 825 North Capitol St. NE, by police officers and security guards.
Here is my beef with this story and I put it on V. Dion Haynes and Yolanda Woodlee (the story's writers), why is this fired individual not named? They are fired and on admin leave. Out of 98 terminated employees, they couldn't find one that would allow their name to be used? The reason, the employees feared their remaining pay would be jeopardized--about two weeks of severance pay. I doubt that Rhee is really worried about it.

Here is the other thing that is so instructive:
Some council members said they were dismayed by the dismissals. Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he was upset that Rhee told him about the firings after the fact. Rhee and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) angered some members last year when they failed to brief them about 23 schools scheduled to close before the list appeared in the media.

"I think it is essential that the council be informed," Gray said. "There are people who are going to ask us what we think."

Gray said Rhee visited him in his office about 90 minutes after he heard about the firings. He said she told him that the letters had to be reviewed and legal questions answered, leaving little time to inform the council.

"Her assertion was that this wasn't deliberate, and she apologized for it. It is where it is at this point," he said.

Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said that he had not been informed about the firings but that the council was aware that Rhee would take action. "Basically, we gave her the authority to do it, and she exercised her authority," he said.
So the City Council gave Rhee the authority to fire people and then grouse about the fact that she didn't inform them about the firings. What did the City Council expect? That Rhee would come to them and say "pretty please, can I fire your cronies and stooges?" The DC Public schools have long been a bastion of cronyism and patronage. Rhee's goal is to make the office more responsive and effective. Asking permission to fire people, after having been given that authority, is simply ludicrous--but indicative of the way people and the City Council view employment by the public schools, as a sinecure rather than a calling or a mission.

Now some workers are contemplating legal action.
The former employees said they are angry that they were let go despite years of good service. The legislation gives Rhee the right to dismiss them whether they are good or bad performers. They also said they thought the system treated them shabbily in giving them a phone number to call to get information about final pay. Some said they are seeking legal advice. The terminated workers refused to be quoted by name because they officially remain on the school system's payroll for two weeks.

"I've been contacted by a substantial number of terminated central office employees interested in exploring legal action," said Stewart Fried, a lawyer with the Washington office of Kilpatrick Stockton. Fried said he is investigating their grievances to determine whether they have a case.
My bet is that they won't have much. Rhee took an important first step with many employees, by getting them to agree that their employment was "at-will" meaning they could be terminated at any time, with or without cause. Some people will argue that they didn't understand what they signed, but if the DCPS gave them the time to review and contact legal counsel, they will be out of luck.

The Council is worried about how employee evaluations were used in making the decisions to fire people.
Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he had not been contacted by any of the fired employees, but he said he was concerned about whether Rhee properly used the evaluations to determine who should be terminated. Gray said he asked Rhee for a list of the fired employees, which she declined to provide because her office is waiting until all of those employees have received their letters of termination.
I am sorry, perhaps I am missing something. What if these people's evaluations reveal they are terrible workers? What will Gray do then? I was under the impression that evaluations were to determine two things: the person's performance and a plan for improving that performance. If the first is so poor as to warrant termination, then the evaluation has served its purpose.

However, as noted before, performance may have nothing to do with the terminations. Rhee's office and analysis may have pointed out redundancies in jobs and roles. There is no need to have two people doing the same job.

The follow up story noted that the IT department lost 40 of its 50 employees. Now the first question to ask might be what was the job of those IT employees? Was it to support just the central office? If so, 50 employees in IT for a staff of about 800 is just too big. If these people also support the individual schools, you may have a different story, but something tells me the former is more accurate than the latter.

Still, Michelle Rhee has never been secretive about her desire to streamline the central office. When Rhee was given the authority in January, everyone in the office was put on notice that they had to start working better or face the pink slip. Everyone might have thought themselves irreplaceable and Rhee has demonstrated that such is not the case. She fired about 13 percent of the entire staff and 25 percent of those she was given authority to reclassify as at will employees. Often simply doing that galvanizes people to start doing their own job better. Maybe now it has finally hit home.

I say, well done Michelle Rhee.

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