We've had a week of startling revelations about two of the latest Fenty administration scandals. We've heard how the administration manipulated city funds so that it could steer construction contracts to cronies and hide the contracts from the city council and the public. We've heard how Chancellor Rhee fiddled with the DC public schools' budget so that she could fire a few hundred teachers and other employees. Rhee testified at a city council hearing that she didn't plan the Reduction in Force, that she didn't intentionally hire several hundred more teachers than she needed over the summer in order to break the union contract. No, she insisted, she wasn't being malicious; she had simply been incompetent, bumbling, and unable to plan ahead. She had the right to ignore the legal budget of DCPS that the council passed and the mayor signed because she was the head of the agency, and that meant she had the ultimate power. The city council had approved her nomination, so from then on she wasn't accountable to them or anyone else for her actions. And she used, over and over again, the magic words, “for the children.” As long as she was doing it “for the children,” she could do whatever she wanted with the budget, with the staff of DCPS, with the teachers, the principals, and the students. She didn't have to report to the council and her budget officer didn't have to report to the Chief Financial Officer. The only way she could think of to improve management of DCPS was to make a vague promise to in some way “improve communications.” (See Chancellor Rhee's and Chief Financial Officer Gandhi's testimony at http://www.dcpswatch.com/rif, and the video of the hearing at http://octt.dc.gov/services/on_demand_video/channel13/october2009/10_29_09_COW_1.asx, http://octt.dc.gov/services/on_demand_video/channel13/october2009/10_29_09_COW_2.asx, and http://octt.dc.gov/services/on_demand_video/channel13/october2009/10_29_09_COW_3.asx.
Rhee ignored instructions about cuts, council says
By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 30, 2009
D.C. Council members angrily accused Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee on Thursday of skirting the law by deciding unilaterally to lay off teachers and staff -- instead of trimming summer school operations -- to save $9 million in the school system's budget.
The decision, which Rhee defended on legal and policy grounds, was one of a series of disclosures during a contentious day-long oversight hearing that shed new light on the layoffs. The dismissals have sparked vociferous street protests, a union lawsuit and the most intense public debate of Rhee's 28-month tenure.
For some council members, the revelations confirmed suspicions that Rhee ignored a council directive to trim the summer school program and manipulated this year's budget process to further her goal of replacing a large portion of the city's 4,000 teachers. They vowed to press their investigation of the dismissals.
The hearing also laid bare festering tensions between Rhee and D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), a possible mayoral candidate next year, who has for months criticized the school leader for a lack of communication and transparency. He said her decision, which he called "incredibly cavalier," violated legal requirements that she submit a "reprogramming" request to the council when shifting funds.
"I'm talking about the law," Gray said. "Why bother to have a legislative body if the people in the executive branch do whatever they choose because they don't like the decision of the legislative body?"
Others took issue with Gray's analysis, but even some of Rhee's most steadfast supporters on the council rebuked her for the bitter state of relations between the school system and elected officials.
"We cannot continue to have this kind of craziness," said Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who noted encouraging signs of progress in the schools but lamented that "we are sitting in a chamber where tensions couldn't be higher." Under Rhee, test scores have risen recently, and enrollment appears to have stabilized after a long decline.
'Change is hard'
Testifying under oath, Rhee said she was open to improving communications but added: "Change is hard. Some of the decisions we are making are going to cause some opposition and push-back. We can't shy away from those decisions because we don't want to hear the noise."
Rhee said the Oct. 2 layoffs of 266 teachers and other educators were needed to help close a $43.9 million shortfall in the 2010 budget. Union leaders have denounced the action as an illegal mass firing designed to purge older educators. They have gone to court to have the teachers reinstated.
Rhee also revealed new information about the teachers who were fired and the 934 she hired during the spring and summer. In written testimony delivered Wednesday night, she told Gray that the average age of the District's teachers is 42 and that the average age of those who were laid off is 48. The average age of the 934 new hires is 32.
Rhee had deflected claims of age discrimination in interviews this month, saying that the average age of the laid-off educators was consistent with the age of the school workforce.
Thursday's hearing centered on $20.7 million the council cut from the school budget July 31, part of a citywide belt-tightening because of declining tax revenue. About $9 million of the cut came in the form of a reduction in 2010 summer school operations.
Rhee said that summer school has become a critical component in helping high school students catch up academically, recover course credits and stay on a path toward graduation. Given a choice between protecting the interests of adults and students, she said, she chose to protect students. The $9 million represents a little more than 100 of the 266 teacher layoffs.
A visibly exasperated Gray was not swayed, citing what he called Rhee's violation of city regulations.
"You think that's inconsequential?" he asked. "You think that's okay?"
Rhee responded: "I think that at times you are making difficult decisions, and things don't always happen in the ideal manner," adding that Attorney General Peter Nickles and James Sandman, the school system's general counsel, advised her that she was on firm legal ground. She added that she will submit the reprogramming request next year before the beginning of summer school.
Mixed phone signals
Gray asked why the council had to wait until Thursday to learn that rerouting summer school funds was part of her strategy for meeting the shortfall. Rhee, in turn, accused Gray of being unwilling to pick up the phone.
"There have been multiple occasions in the last few months where I have tried to get on the phone to talk to you about these issues," she said, describing one particular day in which two scheduled conference calls fell through because he was not available.
Council members also denounced Rhee's chief financial deputy, Noah Wepman, who acknowledged that he was aware in mid-July that as the school system was hiring hundreds of new teachers it faced a deficit of between $12 million and 13 million in its 2009 budget. Wepman said he briefed Rhee on the deficit, which eventually grew to $20 million, and said she would need to adjust the 2010 budget to close the gap. One of the options discussed, Wepman said, was layoffs.
Wepman also acknowledged that he never shared information about the deficit with his superior, the District's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, who certified the 2010 budget without knowing of the potential shortfall. Wepman conceded that he should have been more communicative.
Joyce E. Smithey, an employment lawyer with Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, said in an interview that "if the evidence shows that the chancellor hired employees in bad faith, then the question is whether she did so with the goal of forcing a layoff of older employees. If that's the case, then any admission about advanced knowledge of budget troubles could be damaging."
Rhee's pride could trip up admirable effort
by Robert McCartney
Sunday, November 1, 2009
The future of the District's school system may well be decided by whether Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's forceful reform campaign becomes mired in a swamp of her own self-defeating hubris.
A lively, dramatic D.C. Council hearing Thursday illustrated again the need for Rhee to temper her autocratic approach, especially by communicating and collaborating better with the body that approves her budget.
On balance, I think she'll continue to move forward despite the emergence of potential legal problems. Her admirable, ambitious efforts are showing results in the form of higher test scores, spruced-up buildings and stabilized enrollment.
However, part of any schools chief's job is dealing effectively with the city's elected representatives, and there, Rhee is coming up short. The hearing revealed instances in which she circumvented the council's action and delayed giving it important information about the origins of last month's controversial teacher layoffs.
For now, Rhee can count on just enough support in the council to keep it from blocking her and her patron, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), from pushing ahead. That could change, though, if she doesn't wise up.
Admittedly, some council members postured for television at the hearings and bullied Rhee to show how tough they are. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) has a political motive for bludgeoning her, as he is considering running for mayor partly on an anti-Rhee platform.
But even some of Rhee's strongest allies were practically begging her to share more information with them and get along better with Gray.
"I will continue to support your reform. I need you to be a better communicator," David A. Catania (I-At Large) said. "I need more respect and understanding directed toward the chairman, and I don't know how many more times we can have this discussion."
Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) told Rhee: "I do know you were making progress. . . . Now I think you're further apart from our labor force."
The strained relations between Fenty and Rhee, on one side, and the council and the Washington Teachers' Union seem to be out of sync with the goals of some powerful people in the Obama administration. Recently, Education Secretary Arne Duncan strongly praised the cooperative spirit that led to a labor agreement between the city of New Haven, Conn., and the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU's parent organization.
"This is a really important progressive labor agreement. It's one that folks around the country should take note of. Basically, everyone came together, the school district, the union, the city," Duncan said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
Two-year-old negotiations between Rhee and the union over a new contract are currently in a deep freeze while the union fights the layoffs.
At the hearing, Rhee was poised and even conciliatory at times. She also sounded self-righteous, though, especially in her repeated statements that she acts only in the interest of children. That maddened some council members, who said they, too, care about children first.
Three revelations at the hearing illustrated the communication problems, and some could mean legal difficulties for the D.C. school system:
-- Rhee acknowledged that she decided on her own in August to reverse a council decision to cut back sharply on summer school. She chose to save money instead through the Oct. 2 layoffs. Gray and other critics apparently were wrong to suggest that Rhee's switch broke the law. But they had every right to complain that she should have told them earlier.
-- Rhee said she was aware in July of a budget shortfall of at least $12 million but didn't tell the council until September. Meanwhile, the council approved the 2010 budget on July 31 and Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi certified it, without knowing about the deficit. Rhee said she planned to cut central office spending to cover the gap, but it widened unexpectedly in early August.
-- Even staunch Rhee supporters, including Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), said they didn't fully understand what caused the deficit of $43.9 million that Rhee blamed for the dismissals of 266 teachers and others. Several council members accused her of creating it artificially, at least in part, by such actions as hiring 934 teachers from April to August. The union is saying the same in a lawsuit seeking to reverse the layoffs. Rhee denies concocting the shortfall.
Rhee said after the hearing that she plans to reach out. "Everyone agrees that we want to move toward a more productive and positive climate," she said. "I am going to talk to as many council members as I can to get as much input as possible in the steps that we can take to move in that direction."
She can still rely on the backing of at least five of the council's 13 members -- Catania, Wells, Evans, Graham and Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). That number is significant, because it's just enough to keep the council from getting the nine votes necessary to override a Fenty veto.
Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who supports school reform but is growing more critical of Rhee, said in an interview that the chancellor should see the world less starkly. "She has this dichotomy which is not a correct one: Either do what I want, everybody be damned, or I'm giving up," Cheh said. "You can accomplish your goals and work with other people. "
E-mail me at mccartneyr@washpost