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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."
Bill Turque

By Bill Turque  |  May 14, 2009; 9:12 PM ET
Categories:  Bill Turque , Education  
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Rhee-Fenty have prostituted the passions of the District electorate to improve public schools for the sole self-serving desire for money and power.

It was Fenty that said he would make this reform effort transparent, yet it is he that is hiding documents, reports and district officials from review and scrutiny instead using phony passion for urgency to move things along.

Thanks to Council chair Gray, those days are over. In essence, the chair has said put up or shut up. He has finally called the Mayor and the Chancellor's bluff, and it IS a bluff.

Rhee suggesting that people will flock back to public schools because of the economy is pitiful at best. Parents who have left DCPS did so for a reason. They put their kids first. In an economic crunch, they will cut back yes, but they will NOT do so at the expense of their child's education. You can expect them to stay at the charters and private schools.

Is this what is behind the Mayor's lack luster support of vouchers? He wishes to manhandle District parents forcing them to re-enroll their children back into this failed system? Is he using the economy as a weapon against charter and private school parents (WHO VOTE!)? Is this how he presumes he is going to increase DCPS enrollment? BY FORCE vs. by improving the image and performance of the DCPS system?

Chairman Gray is right on all fronts. The council is expected to to it that government is running efficiently. If the Mayor is spoon feeding them information it makes it impossible to to that. As such, they are forced to sit back and wait until he does. Meanwhile the citizens and government services suffer. The Mayor is his own obstructionist.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | May 15, 2009 8:04 AM | Report abuse

Go Chairman Gray and the City Council -- keep up the good work. Many citizens are behind you now.

I can hardly wait to see the Post editorial board's response to this.

Posted by: efavorite | May 15, 2009 9:02 AM | Report abuse

It makes no sense! DCPS lost 5,000 students this year alone and we are expected to believe that 3,000 are coming back? Please! HOLD THE MONEY! How many teaching positions were not filled this year? HOLD THE MONEY! How many teachers will retire this year? HOLD THE MONEY! Has anyone been able to interpret the submitted budget yet? It always seems to get sent back for clarity for one reason or the other. HOLD THE MONEY!

Posted by: candycane1 | May 15, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Congratulations, Chairman Gray for being on your toes. I'm from California and I'm watching too!

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | May 15, 2009 8:58 PM | Report abuse

DCPS' CFO is Noah Wepman. Isn't the same guy who messed up Special Ed. 6 years ago? Rhee should spend more time in town to see that she has no kids in the schools.
The mayor will wake up one day to see that she is gone and left him with an underenrolled school system and a double digit budget deficit.

Posted by: jessicablack75 | May 16, 2009 12:16 AM | Report abuse

It's good to see DC government officials waking up. Where in the world will she get thousands of children? Closing all of the schools last year did not help at all because that reduced enrollment. DC needs stable leadership in the mayor's office who will hire a real, stable chancellor or somebody to lead the school system because this is not working for the children or their parents. Linda/Retired Teacher, how often is rhee out there in California? Jessica, you are so on point. If she spent more time learning how to do her job and then doing it rather than running all over the place trying to be on every committee, council and group there is, the children in DC would be better off. You can't run a school system from a plane to Sacremento to see your 'man.'

Posted by: southyrndiva | May 18, 2009 2:38 PM | Report abuse

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