Gray vs. Rhee: About More Than Numbers
Is it personal or just business?
The escalating dispute between Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee over budget dollars and enrollment projections seems to resonate on both levels.
Rhee has been pushing back in an unusually public manner since the Council voted Monday to slice $27.5 million from the 2010 DCPS budget, a move that she warns will trigger serious cuts in school-level budgets. She's written (and even shared with us grubby scribes) two letters to Gray in the past four days defending her enrollment arithmetic -- letter one, letter two (pdf files). She concludes that after years of decline, the school system will actually gain 373 students in the coming year, putting its rolls at 45,054.
Gray doesn't buy it, especially in light of projections on the public charter school side, which anticipate a gain of 2,700 students--many of them likely migrating from DCPS. His staff said looking at the last three years of enrollment trends, DCPS ought to land somewhere around 41,509.
He released his own response to Rhee this evening. It strongly suggests that while there are legitimate differences over the numbers, there are also larger tensions that have been simmering for months. Gray by several accounts is exasperated by what he sees as the evasive and disclosure-averse culture that dominates the Fenty-Rhee camp. That resentment is embedded throughout tonight's four-page letter.
"Allow me to emphasize that the Council continues to support education reform efforts, all the while requesting openness and transparency," Gray wrote.
Rhee bases much of her forecast on a demographic analysis of DCPS enrollment she commissioned from the Brookings Institution, the Urban Institute and the 21st Century School Fund. But Gray and the council say they have never seen what is obviously a seminal document.
"During our many inquiries, the work of these organizations was not submitted to the Committee [of the Whole] to substantiate DCPS enrollment projections. If models exist...please transmit them to the Council."
Among the justifications for her projection, Rhee cites the addition of nearly 1,000 students to DCPS over the course of the current school year. This is a sharp turnaround from a similar period in 2007-08, when the system lost 800 kids. The Chancellor's people say that last year's round of school closings and consolidations have slowed the rate of exodus. Parents seem to like many of the Pre-K-8 schools that were created by adding grades to existing elementary schools. Many fifth and sixth grade families that might otherwise have bailed for charter or private schools are staying. Rhee also cites the addition of new pre-school and kindergarten seats.
"Finally," Rhee wrote to Gray Wednesday, "the impact of the national economy cannot be ignored. We anticipate that more families will return to public schools in light of the faltering economy."
Gray and some other council members find this analysis a tad wishful, not to mention disingenuous. Council member Kwame Brown (D-At Large), one of the members Rhee was scheduled to talk to this week in an effort to walk back Monday's decision, said he planned to tell her as much.
"You want more money for reform efforts, tell me you want $27 million for reform efforts, I probably can agree to that," Brown told The Wire's Tim Craig. "But you want me to agree to something that is not true. .... I don't think anyone believes there are going to be 3,000 more kids."
In his letter, Gray reiterated that the council's disposition of the $27.5 million was not a cut, but "a short-term segregation of funds" that would be restored in October if DCPS projections proved accurate. He said the council "does not believe that inflated enrollment projections are an apprioriate method of securing additional funds....The Committee, without adequate information, remains wary about a scenario where DCPS may not meet an enrollment projection that is incongruent with current historical trends."
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