The hard road of Michelle Rhee's CFOs
D.C. Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi named a new interim school system CFO Tuesday. Noel Bravo, a former senior budget adviser to Mayor Anthony A. Williams, replaces Noah Wepman, who resigned or was fired, depending on who you ask.
Bravo is walking into what has become one of District government's most punishing posts. Wepman's departure marks the second time on Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's watch that the school system's top fiscal officer has left in the wake of questions about the transparency of the agency's budget process.
Wepman and his predecessor, Pamela Graham, took different paths to the exit sign. But both ultimately discovered that trying to keep the numbers straight under Rhee's high-velocity attempt at transformation can be dangerous to your career health.
Part of the peril is structural. A congressional directive from the financial control board era gives the District's independent chief financial officer, not the head of the school system, power over spending. The set up put Wepman and Graham in a difficult position from the start: answering to Gandhi but facing enormous pressure to say "yes" to a chancellor given virtual carte blanche by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty to fix the schools.
Graham ran into trouble two years ago this month, when Rhee faced hard questions at a D.C. Council hearing about a projected $115-million-plus deficit in the school system budget, which members said they learned about only that day.
At the 2007 hearing, Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D), produced a memo from Graham urging Rhee to impose a hiring freeze and reduce spending. Graham attributed some of the deficit to what she called Rhee's improper hiring and promotion of 132 employees.
"The practice of overriding process and procedure in hiring new employees must not continue," Graham wrote. In what has become a recurring theme, Council members complained that Rhee's management style was disclosure-averse. They were also unhappy with DCPS' failure to get information to the public about the 2009 school budget in a timely manner. (School officials got somewhat better marks on that count this year).
Appearing on Rhee's behalf at the hearing was Wepman, a program manager for then-City Administrator Dan Tangherlini. He said in an interview that officials were disappointed that Graham prepared her memo without the administration's input.
Graham resigned in March 2008, as a direct result of the clash over new hires, The Post's V. Dion Haynes, quoting sources, reported at the time. Her replacement was the boyish-looking Wepman, then 34.
"The chancellor and I have a very good relationship," Wepman told Haynes. "I have a good understanding of where she wants to take the school system and what reforms she has in mind," he added. "We're all on the same team."
He met his demise after the Oct. 29 council hearing on this fall's teacher layoffs and budget cuts, which followed the hiring of more than 900 new instructors. Testifying ahead of Rhee, Wepman disclosed the existence of a $13 million deficit, or "potential pressure" as the Chancellor's office describes it, in the 2010 budget that helped to trigger the 266 teacher layoffs. Wepman discussed it with Rhee in July, but never told Gandhi, who certified the budget as in balance without knowledge of the issue. Council members started calling for his ouster.
There is no evidence that Wepman withheld the information at Rhee's behest. What kind of consultation took place between Rhee and Gandhi prior to his accepting Wepman's resignation is also not known.
In a statement issued Tuesday evening, Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway said:
"Noah has worked hard on behalf of the children of the District of Columbia for almost six years, and we are grateful for his service. Noah resolved the budget issues and balanced the DCPS budget by creating a solid reduction plan before a deficit ever materialized. However, he was unwilling to allow surrounding questions to distract from the important and ongoing work of school reform."
November 10, 2009; 6:08 PM ET
Categories: Bill Turque , Education
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