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Posted at 11:38 AM ET, 04/30/2010

Rhee, smoke and mirrors in the D.C. schools budget

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | 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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Rhee seems to forget that she can not do the job of educating the youth of DC without help. She seems to think she can will it and things will change. Her take no prisoners attitude may work for Wall Street, but not when you are in a people business. Her attitude is even harsh to parents-and they are the reason she even has a job. I'm an educator, but I will never work in DC as long as she is in charge.

Posted by: dho7993186 | April 30, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

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.

No, you have a pi tbull of a chancellor
( she lacks the basic qualifications to be a school superintendent) who makes a lot of noise but not much else.

Posted by: mamoore1 | April 30, 2010 12:28 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure it is fair to blame the special education funding on Rhee. Since the special education laws were passed, school districts everywhere have seen their special education budgets skyrocket and lawsuits as well.
It seems to me that if DC has a history of sending special ed kids to private schools to avoid lawsuits or to provide the best situation for them, you can't blame Rhee for not creating and entirely new program in just 3 years.
It sounds like her screening program for the little ones and the program you mentioned are a good start.
I'm glad you brought up special education. It is almost never mentioned in the debates over school reform, it is extremely expensive and should have been funded properly by the NCLB reforms.
Do you think the DC Special Ed. teachers are worse off than their counterparts around the nation? Those jobs are hard to fill in part because they require a whole separate degree on top of an education degree and in part because of the difficulty of the position.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 30, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Just between us Valerie this has really tested my confidence in Chancellor Rhee. I mean everyone around me is calling her a pathological liar or a degenerate sociopath incapable of human warmth or an enabler of sex with underage girls or a bumbling incompetent who was never qualified to run a convenience store much less the DCPS. It's hard to believe they're all wrong but I will cling desperately to a time, not so long ago, when things were not so clear about the capabilities and competencies of reform princess Michelle.

My mind wanders to the lovely picture of Michelle on the cover of Time magazine gently sweeping a classroom with a broom. And isn't that where she shines? Those incomparable people skills! The leadership by example! How many $275,000 a year Chancellors will get in there with the custodians to keep things in order.

Then there are the echoes of the soon-to-be president Barack Obama saying Michelle's name to a national TV audience. Even though he treats her name like it was poison now it was thrilling at the time. Misty watercolor memories of the way we were.

And I remember how loyal she can be when her man gives special tutoring to 16-year-old girls, lots of 16-year-old girls. You know when Michelle falls she falls hard, as many as 50 e-mail kisses a day. How many other women in a position of great power would risk it all to cover up child molestation? It's the stuff of romance novels and indictments and conjugal visits. Thankfully the one DC teacher that had sex with the student wasn't her betrothed and he could be RIFed several months after the incident.

Posted by: natturner | April 30, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

Just finished listening to the Kojo show and God Daddy “City Attorney General” Nickles said that this contract is historic on a local and national level and is a tribute to Rhee and Fenty. There you have it folks. It aint about the kids

Posted by: thelildiva4u | April 30, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

Wow! Thank you, Valerie Strauss, for writing an article that actually attempts to handle the schools situation in a mature manner. I just hope that the leadership takes this to heart and starts building the community support (inclusive of ALL parts of the city) that is necessary to get school reform that is successful and sustainable for the students.

Thelildiva4u: I heard AG Peter Nichols on WAMU today also. He is absolutely sure that the contract will be certified and ratified. More activities that will not be transparent to the taxpayers -- but who cares if we are on the hook for something that may not be sustainable even in the near future? No one, and I mean NO ONE has shown how these raises will be funded after 2012, after the current contract has expired. What revenue stream(s) are they relying on?

Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | April 30, 2010 2:43 PM | Report abuse

I should stop hitting the submit button so fast.
The tentative agreement, if it becomes a contract will end in 2012, is that right? However, I saw an article today that stated that the foundation funding would be available into 2013? Is that true?

Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | April 30, 2010 2:50 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the most thoughtful article I've read in the WaPo on the DCPS and the chancellor.

Posted by: sanderling5 | April 30, 2010 3:21 PM | Report abuse

If anyone would like to listen to the God Father on WAMU assurance that the contract will be signed in 2 days.

Posted by: thelildiva4u | April 30, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for a thoughtful column. Michelle Rhee obviously means well but she doesn't have the experience necessary to run a large school system. This is becoming painfully obvious. And what makes it even more infuriating is, as you noted, her "I-am-always-right" attitude. Not a way to win allies.

Posted by: oldmh | April 30, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

Would that you would extend the analysis of accomplishment from special education to other areas. Where, oh where are the achievements which have other mature education observers admire this Chancellor? Her job is not to be the Jon Stewart of the Daily Show or leader of the Colbert Nation, besting every guest. Her job is to transform DCPS, not to watch as total public charter school enrollment grows to exceed DCPS's.

Posted by: incredulous | April 30, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

"Her job is to transform DCPS, not to watch as total public charter school enrollment grows to exceed DCPS's."

These two concepts may not be mutually exclusive in her view or in the view of those who doggedly support her.

Posted by: efavorite | May 1, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Valerie - thanks for demonstrating that you've seen the light on this. I hope this means that you no longer think that “Striking the contract with the teachers union was one sign that the chancellor can compromise."

I see it as a sign that she will publicly humiliate not only her employees, but also her benefactors – the foundations who naïvely pledged money with strings attached, somehow thinking this would pass the scrutiny of the CFO. They even got a letter to the editor published defending their stance on the very day the CFO shot them down. Now Rhee is manipulating them further, saying just yesterday that, “the District is attempting to persuade the private funders -- the Broad, Arnold, Walton and Robertson foundations -- to modify their requirements.”

Yes, the foundations are deep in her snare now. I can hardly wait to see how they will react. While I’d prefer that the Chancellor and the foundations just went away, there is some perverse pleasure in watching this latest power play evolve.

Posted by: efavorite | May 1, 2010 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Ms Strauss:

Do the editorial writers at the Post read your column? To them (or is it just him - Lee?), Ms. Rhee can do no wrong. To them/him, Montgomery County is a horrible school district. Forget the fact that Montgomery County is one of the two best school districts in the best school state in America! Why do the editorial writers obsessively pick on the teachers in Montgomery County? Why not pick on a school district that's not doing so well?

Posted by: JackS2 | May 2, 2010 8:23 PM | Report abuse

A 50 million increase in special education from 220 to 270 million. Do readers realise that the budget for building level is only around 400 million, central office budge was 130 plus million?

Part of the reason that DC students are left behind is that pecios little of the finincail resource is invested in the schools. Basically half of the money goes to providing school level services for just under 50 thousand children. About 15 percent is concentrated in Central office funding, an another 35 percent of the budget is spent on special education and transporataion outside of the system for less than 10% of the DC student body-that is very skewed and unsustainable. I was gratified to hear that Gray will try to have more quality special education services withinDCPS -I hope that under his leadership parents will be included in the development of higher quality programs for all children.

Posted by: rastajan | May 2, 2010 11:17 PM | Report abuse

So, what are you saying?! You want change, but you don't want change. You seem to be more interested that Rhee go through protocol than getting the job done.... namely, providing better educational opportunities for the students of DC.
Rhee wants to get rid of bad teachers, raises money on her own to carry the day and YOU think she should be talking to other power brokers, (i.e., Ghandi?, etc.), for permission?! Rhee is the sixth superintendent in nine years and your entire article is rife with hypocrisy! Who's side are you on anyway? You don't make any sense.
Rhee is about CHANGE & EDUCATION, you're article is about working with others and being all nice.... you don't get it, you've got an educational district that is bankrupt, you don't want to give Rhee the support she needs to get the job done, no... you want her to seek permission from those who have failed in the past!
Better read what you wrote and then think about what you really want or don't want for the young people in DC. You don't want change, you want protocol....... to hell with the kids!!

Posted by: rolcan | May 3, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

WaPo putting Rhee on blast?! Who sneaked this article past the editors..?

Posted by: isupreme | May 3, 2010 9:11 AM | Report abuse

People have a weird cult like following to Rhee. And I am going to lay my cards on the table.

I thought Dr. Janey was very smart, he wrote wonderful plans, the Master Education Plan and the Master Facilities Plan both are still being used today.

Rhee could not have written those plans. She does not have the education background.

So her skill, which was very beneficial was to cock the hammer and execute---do whatever needed to be done to make the school system work. She had the get it done attitude.

While that is successful for trimming the fat, the school does also need to build. And that doesn't seem to be here skill.

So while I am grateful to Rhee for cutting the fat...everything is not fat worth cutting and she seems to only be in one mode and knows one trick.

I am an engaged woman--who owns a house in Washington DC. My friends have gone this path--there single...I will live in the District forever. They get married --oh this is a great place to be newlyweds, we can walk to work and restaurants. It is like living in a Woody Allen movie except in DC rather than NYC or London. Then the first kid arrives. ...and the love of DC fades. By time the second arrives or the kid needs a school beyond 1st grade there is a for sale sign outside their house. And they give me a calling card with a Virginia or Montgomery County address, moving for better schools but a lousy commute.

FIX THE SCHOOLS. By time I have my child..I would like options, partnerships with national and international agencies, languages, rotc, sports and technology.

Posted by: 411Tibby | May 3, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

@411Tibby; that one trick pony analogy...only leads me to believe that soon it will be sent out to pasture.

Posted by: PowerandPride | May 3, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

regarding why the Post picks on Montgomery county schools -- it's because they have a functional union.

It has nothing to do with the teachers or the management - they want to bust the union.

Posted by: efavorite | May 3, 2010 11:04 AM | Report abuse

You Rhee haters sure do *love* failure. You can obsess and gossip about niceties, taking pot-shots at this or that mistake, and all you're doing is distracting from the absolute and incontrovertable fact that DC public schools are an absolute human catastrophe. Fenty and Rhee have put the future of the students first, have not settled for baby-steps, watered-down, go-slow reforms that achieve next-to-nothing and allow entropy to re-encroach at every opportunity. Their eyes are on the prize. They are going at full throttle (god bless em!), and this will lead to petty mistakes and a bit of broken china. Gosh it's sad that people are getting their feelings hurt. But kids LIVES have been getting ruined for DECADES (and the bureaucrats and teachers unions, defending greed and sloth, have blood on their hands). Communities are continually plowed-under as people are forced to flee the city for the good of their children. What a travesty and tragedy it would be for DC to not have the courage to see this effort through. More and Faster, PLEASE!

Posted by: jejonesdc | May 3, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

It is very interesting to read the articles and comments regarding the superintendent. Let's not forget that she has brought accountability to a very poor school system. Not to mention the political mess that has been created to hide the inadequacies of central office personnel and everyone affiliated with the DCPS schools syatem.

The bottom line is the system has failed generations of children.....the same children/adults that riddle our city with crime and drugs. The people can not even compete for jobs within their own city.

Not wanting to associate with individuals that make up the DCPS Bureaucracy is what she said that associating with these individuals is a waste the time. They look for ways to tie up the system instead of actually making progress. The special education system is abused by attorneys and parents alike.

The city finally has someone who is taking accountability and she gets beat down because she has stumbled. You grow stronger from your mistakes and that makes you better prepared for the next hurdle........dealing with the DCPS, expect a litany of stumbling blocks.

Posted by: Wes134 | May 3, 2010 12:14 PM | Report abuse

Earlier, this article was reposted as having been in the print edition.
Now that version, with its comments, is gone, with the link dated for today bringing us here.

As for "have blood on their hands", are you blaming the WTU for Bonita Jacks, Henry "Little Man" James, and Rayford Smith???

Great analogy.
So Miss Rhee can say "No criminals made on my watch"?

Posted by: edlharris | May 3, 2010 1:18 PM | Report abuse

i am late to this one, but two negative columns on rhee in one weekend. my goodness the tide is changing. why not list all the bad budgeting and management issues.

This budgeting approach of denial is quite common and historic in DCPS. it seems to me if DCPS did not build capacity, non-public tuition should be over budget too.

How is the non public tuition budget over at State Education. is it over budget? Did they budget for it correctly?

Posted by: oknow1 | May 3, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Correction on the criminal's name:
Rayful Edmond III

Posted by: edlharris | May 3, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

"Such behavior does not bode well for the long-term health of the D.C. school system."

As if there was any health, long, short, or any term! Keep going Michelle. You have 100% of my support.

Posted by: rob1662 | May 3, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

She makes these mistakes because she is NOT QUALIFIED to be a Superintendent of a school system. In fact this is the epitome of the "Peter Principle" in effect; unfortunately its the kids who suffer.

Did any of you realize that the former DC State Superintendent of Education - Debra Gist was just named one of the 100 most influential people in the country for the work that she is doing in the state of Rhode Island? The same, highly qualified, State Superintendent who was usurped by an unqualified chancellor with the aid of the Mayor...

The simple fact of the matter is that if any of Rhee's immediate predecessors had been given the same power and money you could surmise that they would have made substantial improvements...if only because they were qualified for the job! The current improvements are based upon processes that Janey put in place; Rhee's result will manifest shortly and the fact that SpecEd budget has increased is not a good sign.

Posted by: Jigsaw | May 3, 2010 2:47 PM | Report abuse

C-O-S-I-G-N- Jigsaw!!!

I have met plenty of people who had so much respect for Ms. Gist. Although some disagreed with her, they all felt she was knowledgeable and qualified.

Posted by: thelildiva4u | May 3, 2010 3:01 PM | Report abuse

Wasn't Miss Gist to investigate the erasure problem on DC-CAS and report on it?
What happened there?

Posted by: edlharris | May 3, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Here is the Gist erasure story:

Posted by: edlharris | May 3, 2010 3:15 PM | Report abuse

Wow--that was a very loooong article. But I read enough of it to agree.

Posted by: forgetthis | May 3, 2010 3:16 PM | Report abuse


Posted by: Laura21 | May 3, 2010 4:21 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the most honest and fact finding article!

I will continue to say....DO NOT BLAME Michelle Rhee; she is just the fall gal! BLAME MAYOR FENTY, he is the problem in all of this education mess/drama!

We can do something about it,

Posted by: asil7981 | May 3, 2010 5:21 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I failed to mention......I feel sorry for the children and teachers caught up in this educational drama!

Posted by: asil7981 | May 3, 2010 5:23 PM | Report abuse

"petty mistakes and a bit of broken china"

like not having enough money to fund the contract.

And private foundations setting the condition that Rhhe must stay or they can pull the money.

Not so petty.

Posted by: efavorite | May 3, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

"Let's not forget that she has brought accountability to a very poor school system." - Wes134

How has she brought accountibility to the system. Have you been following her career? She has brought nothing havoc and disruption. There's been no accountability.

Posted by: aby1 | May 3, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

Oh, I failed to mention......I feel sorry for the children and teachers caught up in this educational drama!

Posted by: asil7981 | May 3, 2010 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Thank you for this thoughtful commentary.
-DC resident

Posted by: 4learning | May 3, 2010 5:51 PM | Report abuse

Great article. Truly surprised that WAPO permitted it to be printed. WAPO has taken sides in the Fenty/Rhee vs the World revealing to us that the paper will be used to further WAPO's views. WAPO is a newspaper that is failing because it revels in its ability to turn fiction into fact and call it journalism. Thanks for highlighting the ongoing tragedy of special education services. If Rhee is truly a reformer she would have focused some of that "talent" on the difficult task of building service capacity within the school system. This is grit work --trying to build something that serves the neediest of DCPS students. It can be done but it takes talent, experience and commitment -all in short demand in the Chancellor's office. There are no short cuts. A reordering of priorities is required and skilled financial management must be readily available. Have we not yet had enough of Rheeform at any cost? Don't you just love the faithful- like jejonesdc and rolcan who are thrilled that Rhee was turned loose with a hammer and the directive to make change by any means necessary. It is past time for the citizens of DC to show Miz Rhee the door.

Posted by: lightkeeper | May 4, 2010 12:45 AM | Report abuse

Nothing to add to this one but a BIG THANK YOU for writing this piece. The truth is hard to find at the post but you nailed this one.

Posted by: candycane1 | May 4, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

For the Rhee lovers - I understand your position that you see she has made strides, and no one can take that from her. Change is difficult. However, she is not running a private organization, its a public entity and information has to be disclosed because public dollars are at stake. The fact that she got private funding is awesome but let's be real, she knows that her position is also political and if Fenty isn't reelected there is a strong possiblity she won't be around. So as a businesswoman what did she do? Got stipulations to their giving so it was written in for her job security - one she stays and the money stays in DCPS or two, she goes and the money can follow to her next venture. I believe she may come across more credible if she didn't come across as contradicting her own statements. Her qualifications may be at question - it seems like if she knew DC Government regulations she would have known what type of donations she could get from private entities and the fact that it would need CFO approval before signature. This city has seen so much back-door activities, no one is exempt from scrutiny on decisions in DC, including Ms. Rhee.

Posted by: SaveDC1 | May 4, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

She doesn't have a clue what she is doing and it shows. She will crash and burn.

When these kids come to school ready to learn and with the right attitude, our test scores will outrank the rest of the world. It's ridiculous to compare our scores with China, India, etc. If you are not a good student, you don't even make it to high school there. But it makes good press to bash the teachers.

Posted by: veteranteacher1 | May 5, 2010 6:39 AM | Report abuse

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