The Washington Teachers Union’s reputation couldn’t have sunk any lower than several years ago. Its chieftain, Barbara Bullock, and close allies in and out of the union from 1995-2002 ran their union like a candy store, ripping off at least $4.6 million from WTU coffers. It was only in late 2002, with the release of a damning independent audit ordered by the parent union, the American Federation of Teachers, that the reign of theft ended. Virtually all persons charged in the case either pleaded guilty or were convicted by jury. Bullock, an out-of-control spendthrift, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a nine-year stretch in federal prison. One would have thought that the local’s current leaders would go to any lengths to avoid even the appearance of malfeasance. But old habits die hard – or at least a recent lawsuit alleges.
On April 28, Nathan Saunders, the WTU’s current general vice president, filed suit in federal court against the leaders of his union and a number of District of Columbia local government officials, stating he was “systematically punished and retaliated against” for speaking out on various issues. The scale of alleged wrongdoing is far smaller this time around, but it can’t inspire too much member confidence either. The latest action is the culmination of a simmering feud between Saunders and the current local president, George Parker, each elected to their posts in 2005. The suit names Parker, current Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, WTU Chief of Staff Clay White, AFT officers Al Squires and Edward McElroy, four members of the WTU executive board, and three unnamed employees of the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) system. Is Saunders a classic case of the disgruntled odd man out, a crank inflicting payback upon anyone who crossed him the wrong way? Or does he have legitimate gripes? Evidence suggests the latter possibility can’t be ruled out.
The Washington Teachers Union hasn’t had much room to maneuver since the start of 2003. Its period of receivership under AFT-appointed administrator George Springer ended two years later, but the union since then has been scrambling to protect member jobs, especially in the context of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which President Bush signed one year into his first term. The Washington, D.C. public schools system is now effectively a ward of the offices of Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Rhee. Ms. Rhee has broad powers to restructure the schools, one of which is to remove employees not meeting NCLB standards. Already, she’s pulled the plug on a good number of principals. WTU President Parker has shown a willingness to work with Fenty and Rhee, but Saunders has preferred to lay down a hard line to protect teachers’ contractual rights. The union has been without a collective bargaining agreement for more than a half-year, the previous contract having expired at the end of last September. Periodic negotiations have yet to yield a settlement.
Saunders claims that during a meeting last December of the WTU executive board, certain members attempted to pass a resolution allowing only Parker to speak for the organization. This motion failed, says Saunders. In spite of this, Parker allegedly issued a memo on “Media Policy & Guidelines,” indicating that all official WTU positions on issues henceforth must be conveyed through the union’s communications staff. Saunders’ suit claims that he had heard a phone call between Parker and Squires discussing ways to silence him by tampering with DCPS personnel records.
There are more than free speech issues here. Saunders also charges that Parker and White “embezzled, stole or unlawfully and willfully converted Washington Teachers Union money and funds to their own use or the use of others.” He cites “a diversion of WTU funds, through an out-of-state company, to a family member over a protracted period of time” and an “undecipherable $10,000 finder’s fee” attached to a rental contract. Saunders might seem vindictive, but it’s worth remembering he’s the same person who filed a civil suit against the previous corrupt union leadership late in 2002. That action three years later resulted in an award of more than $450,000 from the WTU to the American Federation of Teachers, with each party free to press claims against those who stole or laundered funds. Politics in the nation’s capital can get pretty vindictive at the local level. (Washington City Paper, 4/28/08; other sources).