Rhee, smoke and mirrors in the D.C. schools budget
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s mantra is performance and accountability, and more performance and more accountability.
She is, in fact, getting ready to judge teachers under her new IMPACT evaluation system, and, presumably, will lop off, figuratively, the professional heads of those who don’t score high enough. That’s accountability in action.
But what about Rhee’s own performance?
To look at the unnecessary and damaging mess over the proposed contract that she negotiated over two-plus years with the teachers union is to wonder whether she could pass an evaluation as tough as the one she set for teachers.
Reaching a contract with the teachers after years of painful negotiations was seen by many as excellent sign that Rhee, and the teachers union, were both able to make painful concessions. Rhee, with her take-no-prisoners, I-am-always-right style, saw the value of compromise.
To fund teachers’ raises in the contract, she secured private funding from foundations--apparently without checking whether the city’s finance folks would sign off on such an arrangement.
As it happened, D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar Gandhi did not, and after a public verbal slugfest between the chancellor and the CFO, a frantic search was begun to find the cash in the D.C. budget.
Because budgeting in the D.C. school system is in part smoke and mirrors anyway, there was hope the money would be found quickly. Today, Gandhi told the D.C. Council that he still could not certify the proposed contract as being fiscally sound, though the search continues to find the money. I'll be surprised if the money is not found.
Gandhi said that schools officials never asked for financial analysis of specific proposals during the negotiations, as law enforcement agencies sometimes do during their contract talks.
In retrospect, nobody should be surprised that yet another controversy has evolved over Rhee’s handling of budget matters, and over her penchant to act without crossing all of her 't's'.
In 2008, she told an Aspen Institute audience that one lesson she had learned working in Washington D.C. was that “cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are way overrated.”
That might be true when you are playing golf.
But when you are trying to reform a school system, cooperation, collaboration and consensus-building are, actually, supremely important, even if a tidy dictatorship sounds simpler.
In fact, if Rhee were making the trains run right on schedule, she might be forgiven her repeated run-ins with folks who might be able to help if she asked nicely. And she might not be emerging from this latest brawl with more self-inflicted wounds that further harm her credibility. It's already a little shaky from a previous scandalover whether she told the truth about why she laid off teachers last year, and from the brouhaha before that, and ..... well, you get it.
Unfortunately, school advocates in the city say that Rhee is the most secretive superintendent in memory, as well as the one who demonstrates the least understanding of budgeting. In the past, the public had a chance to see proposed school budgets early in the process and comment on them. Under Rhee, information is tightly held and only those around Rhee see the budget until she has to formally give it to the D.C. Council.
Even something as routine as releasing enrollment projections for the District became a drawn-out affair; it took my colleague Bill Turque, who covers Rhee, months to get them. Why? Nobody knows.
Such behavior does not bode well for the long-term health of the D.C. school system.
Let’s look at an example, special education, which has long eaten up far more of the schools budget than it should, in part because the school district doesn’t have enough in-house programs. The system instead pays many millions of dollars a year in tuition so that D.C. school kids can go to private special education schools.
In fact, it has been clear for several decades that no D.C. schools boss could ever truly reform the system unless quality special education programs were developed in city schools.
Several superintendents--Rhee was the sixth in nine years when she arrived in June 2007--talked about building capacity, but not much progress has actually been made.
Something always got in the way. Rhee, to her credit, recognized that she had to start at the bottom, and opened a new program called Early Stages, which was designed to identify children 3 to 5 years of age who might have delays and provide services so they could start school on time, with a fighting chance of success.
It’s a smart idea, and the center is up and running. I visited and was impressed.
But a lot of superintendents have had good ideas; the key is implementation. I talked to some special ed teachers, who said they don't have enough aides and other support, and are not at all involved in the creation of a student’s individualized education program. Some of the programs are designed, they said, without enough thought.
To be sure, these problems can be worked out, if management would bother to listen to the employees about what needs to be done.
But here’s where the real problem lies: The budgeting for special ed.
Figures from the D.C. Council show that under Rhee, there has been an increase of $60 million, or 28 percent (from $217 million to $277 million) in expenditures in private school tuition, transportation and fees paid to lawyers who handle cases of students who need to be evaluated by the system. (The city pays to transport special education students to school, whether they are in public or private schools, a program that for years suffered from huge cost overruns.)
Some of that could be explained by the fact that Rhee worked hard to get more kids in the special education system by pushing for evaluations, which in the past have taken much longer than legally required. That is a good thing.
Unfortunately, the system had done nowhere near enough to build capacity within D.C. public schools, so more of the kids were sent to expensive private schools. The policy should have been two-track: bringing kids into the system while creating programs to educate them.
And there is this, which speaks to Rhee’s unrealistic budgeting: The projected overrun for this in the current year is about $50 million. But Rhee’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 is $6 million less than the projected cost for this year.
That’s just one example of bad budgeting. The list is long.
So what have we got? A powerhouse of a superintendent who is bent on doing whatever she thinks she has to do to achieve her goals.
Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to understand--still--that reforms only work when the people who have to implement them are on board. She can make bold pronouncements and she can start all kinds of new programs. But if she keeps damaging her own credibility, it is not likely that she will be in the city for the very long term to see that the reforms are put in place.
And yet again, D.C. school kids will be left behind.
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| April 30, 2010; 11:38 AM ET
Categories: D.C. Schools | Tags: D.C. schools, D.C. teachers contract, Michelle Rhee and budget, d.c. council hearing, gandhi and contract, gandhi and rhee, gandhi approves contract, gandhi's letter, teachers and D.C. and funds, teachers contract
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