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Answers to Fifteen Questions for Chancellor Rhee

On Oct. 14, we posted 15 questions for Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee regarding recent budget cuts and layoffs of 388 school employees, including 229 teachers and 37 support staff. The questions were posed before last Thursday's D.C. Council hearing, when Rhee disclosed that she decided to save $9 million by laying off teachers rather than cut funding for 2010 summer school, as directed by the council. Rhee and her finance deputy, Noah Wepman, also told the council that the school system faced about $20 million in overspending pressures, accrued during fiscal year 2009, that needed to be addressed with cuts.

Based on court filings, sworn testimony before the D.C. Council, and interviews, here are the responses, as best we can determine them, in bold:

1. The math underlying the number of spring/summer hires is confusing. You terminated 248 teachers in June, while at the same time you hired 934. Then you laid off 229. Can you explain how this adds up? How many retirements and resignations did you have at the end of 2008-09? What other factors drove the hiring of the equivalent of nearly one-quarter of your classroom teacher corps?

Rhee has not provided details on retirements or resignations. In council testimony and a signed declaration as part of the District's response to the Washington Teachers' Union lawsuit challenging the layoffs, she said the hiring of 934 new teachers was driven by two factors. The first was a streamlining of central office operations to push more money to the school level, leaving principals to decide how the additional dollars should be used. Most spent it on additional staffing, Rhee said. The other factor was Rhee's goal of bringing back to public schools significant numbers of special education students who were placed in private facilities because the District couldn't meet their needs. She authorized the hiring of 180 new special education teachers so that schools were ready for students returning from private placements.

2. The Washington Teachers' Union says the 934 hires are significantly out of line with prior year spring/summer hiring. How many teachers did you hire in spring/summer 2008, 2007, 2006 and 2005?

The District's court papers call the union claim "demonstrably false" and said that the system hired 527 teachers for the 2007-2008 school year and 627 for 2008-2009. Rhee told the council that DCPS hired 1,121 teachers in 1999, although enrollment was significantly higher then. With the additional teaching slots created by what Rhee said were central office economies and her push to strengthen special education capacity, the 2009-10 hiring numbers fall more into line.

3. Details around the $43.9 million shortfall are lacking. On Oct. 2, you said that total included the D.C. Council reduction ($20.7 million), the elimination of "additional school-level resources" that had been carried on the central office budget and $13.1 million in central cuts gained by "carefully reviewing current projects and responsibilities along with future plans." None of this adds up to $43.9 million. Please explain.

We now know that the "additional school level resources" carried on the central office budget were $13 million for 160 "excessed" teachers who lost positions at the end of the 2008-2009 academic year--because of enrollment or program changes-- but could not find other spots in the system. There were also $7 million in excess non-teaching staff, according to the District court filing. Add the $3 million in RIF-related severance expenses and it's close to $43.9 million.

4. In your FAQ, the $43.9 million is described a bit differently but no less obscurely: summer reductions by the council ($20.5 million), and "additional school level resources that had been carried on the central office budget ($20.5 million)." Where within that is the $13.1 million referenced on Oct. 2?

This refers to the $13 million in excess teachers and $7 million in excess non-teachers.

5. Please elaborate, in itemized form, on the $20.5 million in "school level resources." Is this primarily teachers? The teachers plus custodial, office and student support staff?

See answer 4.

6. Specifically what "current projects and responsibilities along with future plans" make up the $13.1 million that was "cut centrally?"

DCPS provided a list, although it's pretty broad:
Personnel: $1,517,895
Business operations: $101,986
Performance management: $210,723
Budget operations: $429,641
Risk Management: $5,000
School administrative support: $400,000
School operations support: $62,000
Management, Direction and Oversight: $1,500,000
Gifted and Talented: $50,000
Instructional Tech: $1,582,498
Special Education Supplemental Instruction $5,000,000
Professional Development: $500,000
Educational Assessment and Accountability: $175,380
Athletics: $50,000
Parent Resource Center: $354,025
School Based Partnerships: 1,200,000
Total: 13,139,148

7. Please provide a school-by-school account of the number of teacher and other staff positions eliminated.

DCPS said that personnel rules prohibit a school-by-school breakdown "because it could be used to identify separated employees."

8. In mid-June, CFO Natwar M. Gandhi revised revenue estimates for FY 2010 downward by $154.2 million. Was there any consideration given to stopping hiring at that point?

Rhee says no. On July 17, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty submitted a revised budget to the council for all city agencies, but DCPS was not cut and remained at $568 million. "No reduction to the DCPS budget was submitted or anticipated," Rhee said.

9. When, specifically, did you learn that the D.C. Council was preparing to cut $20.7 million?

No specific response.

10. You've said that even without the council action, you were facing some kind of RIF. How extensive would it have been and what would have been involved?

On Sept. 23, Rhee told the DC Wire that "continued rightsizing" of the system would require a smaller round of job cuts. After closing 23 schools at the end of the 2008 academic year, she said DCPS was left with too many custodians, librarians, social workers and guidance counselors. It appears that this was a reference to the $7 million in excess non-teaching staff being carried on central office books.

11. Please explain and differentiate what you received in Stimulus (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), Title I and IDEA funds for FY 2010. How much of the stimulus funding went into the $550 million in local school funding?

The $550 million in local school funding (the funding level after the July 31 council cuts) includes $39.3 million in State Stablization, or Stimulus funds. IDEA and Title I funds were included in the total school budget of $779.5 million.

12. How were the RIF criteria developed? Who were the primary architects?

The reduction-in-force criteria are based on Title 5, Chapter 15 of D.C. Municipal Regulations. Full text can be viewed here.

13. The new evaluation system you introduced last month, IMPACT, was designed in part to address teacher concerns that the old assessment process was too subjective and vulnerable to manipulation by principals who wanted to oust instructors for personal reasons. Yet the "school needs" section of the RIF criteria states that the scores assigned to educators should reflect the principal's "best judgment of the extent to which the person meets the particular needs of your school." Even with the time-sensitive nature of the budget shortfall, wasn't there a more objective instrument to use here?

"We acted as objectively as possible by following the guidelines set forth in the DCMR," said Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway. "We were clear with principals about what could be considered when rating employees, and what could NOT be considered such as race, gender, disability,leave status, union status, family responsibilities, matriculation, political affiliation and religion."

14. How often were principal decisions on personnel reversed by the central office?

"There were no instances where ratings were reversed," Calloway said.

15. You've explained your reasons for wanting to do equalization and layoffs at the same time. But given the reaction you've faced, do you think in retrospect it might have been better to stagger the actions, with layoffs in August and equalization in the fall?

"Layoffs in August would have only jeopardized what was a successful school opening," Calloway said. "Instead of undertaking two separate processes--budget reduction and equalization--we combined these into one in order to minimize disruption to student learning."

--Bill Turque

By Bill Turque  |  November 4, 2009; 4:41 PM ET
Categories:  Bill Turque , Education  
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So, there are no teacher hire numbers for 2000-2006?
Nor do the numbers seem right if they closed 23 schools this past spring.

As for
"The other factor was Rhee's goal of bringing back to public schools significant numbers of special education students who were placed in private facilities because the District couldn't meet their needs. She authorized the hiring of 180 new special education teachers so that schools were ready for students returning from private placements"

Does this mean DCPS was planning to bring back the Accotink students well before they let Accotink Academy and the parents know?

Posted by: edlharris | November 4, 2009 10:00 PM | Report abuse

So it has come to this: the Washington Post, unable to get the Chancellor to submit to anything less than a Sunday Magazine love fest, has to supply answers to the more serious questions (the questions the Chancellor refuses to answer) on their own. The absurdities just pile on.

Posted by: adcteacher1 | November 4, 2009 10:11 PM | Report abuse

Bill: This is terrific. Not always satisfying, and you are sometimes too gracious, too credulous.

That basic data must under Rhee go through a communications clearance and be vetted through the spokesperson says so much.

But, what a good faith-effort effort and surprise to those who thought the questions were just rhetorical.

Posted by: incredulous | November 5, 2009 11:40 AM | Report abuse

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