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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."


Bill Turque

By Bill Turque  |  November 10, 2009; 6:08 PM ET
Categories:  Bill Turque , Education  
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Comments

It was six years too long! When he left for a short time it was due to big time budget screw ups in special ed. Pam Graham tried to tell them and the council should have seen that she was taking the hit unecessarily and that she had no support from Ghandi. Ghandi, another 50 mil loser!

Posted by: candycane1 | November 10, 2009 8:42 PM | Report abuse

The city is fortunate to have someone of the professional and moral caliber of Noel Bravo serving in that capacity. He was widely respected for his service under Anthony Williams and earned a reputation as scrupulously honest. He is a great American.

Posted by: jeremy9 | November 10, 2009 10:38 PM | Report abuse

There's an interesting information on some hiring patterns by Mrs. Rhee:
Barbara Hollingsworth: Importing teachers in the District of Columbia

http://www.washingtonexaminer.com/opinion/columns/Importing-teachers-in-the-District-of-Columbia-8508771.html

Posted by: edlharris | November 10, 2009 11:32 PM | Report abuse

If Michelle Rhee were a bus, the tires would never touch the pavement on account of all the former management "team" whiz kids thrown under it. Put another way, Loyalty Street goes one way in Rheeville.

Posted by: GoDoZo | November 11, 2009 1:26 AM | Report abuse

Rhee--out, fired, get lost...this person appears to be operating with at best convoluted priorities, garnished with a dab (ok, maybe more than a dab) of incompetence and/or malfeasance of office.
Fenty--impeach, prosecute. Disappears with no accountability; played games with mayoral "favors" such as Nats tickets; uses DHS resources for personal items; "jumped the line" getting his kids preferential treatment in school placement; comes off as arrogant, smug, angry, and condescending when questioned on these and other items. He appears to be more interested in what the office holds for him rather than what the occupant of the office should be doing for the voters. If DC voters re-elect him for more of this nonsense, then they have no right to complain when things go badly.

Posted by: GorgTheMerciless1 | November 11, 2009 8:12 AM | Report abuse

When will Fenty wake up and realize Rhee is grossly underqualified to be school's chief? She may have some good ideas on curriculum or teaching, but as an administrator, she is way out of her league. One can only hope she gets married quickly, and then gets out of town just as quick.

Posted by: thadude33 | November 11, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

Pretty soon Rhee and Fenty are going to run out of scape goats.

Posted by: TripLBee | November 11, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

Jeremy9 I hope you are right about Mr. Bravo and his honesty. So far, the CFOs seem to have a short life under Michelle
Rhee.

Maybe he will be able to share with the public and the Council what is really going on with the DCPS budget and the Chancellor's hiring practices without ending his tenure as a CFO for the District Government.

Posted by: shank2sb | November 11, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

@ediharris:

Notice that the Hollingworth piece was OPINION COLUMN. Not fact.

Did anyone actually find the 46 teachers??????

Huh???????

Faux news by the free toilet paper!!!

Yeagh!!!!!!!

Posted by: bs2004 | November 11, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

I am greatly encouraged that Noel Bravo is honest to a fault. The city needs that desperately to be sure.

As for the Hollingsworth piece, I'd be interested in seeing data one way or the other. Unfortunately when a person requests data from the current executive branch or chancellor information is elusive and FOIAs are rebuffed and dodged. Fortunately people are still able to write editorials which are based on opinions.

Posted by: southyrndiva | November 11, 2009 3:33 PM | Report abuse

Pamela Graham should feel totally vindicated after what has been revealed in recent days and weeks. She was one of the most dedicated, straight-forwarded and non-agenda driven colleagues that I have ever encountered in the Office of the CFO. Pam did the right thing when she tried to bring these problems to the surface two years ago. But it's true, no good deed goes unpunished.

Posted by: ssmd11 | November 11, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse

So Wepman and Graham took the hit for Rhee. Will Bravo be next?

Posted by: aby1 | November 12, 2009 8:32 AM | Report abuse

If one takes the job already knowing the pitfalls...then the expertise is either in avoiding pitfalls or surviving pitfalls. I don't think no-one is really discrediting Wepman in regards to his expertise...he just couldn't handle the cross examination from the council. If Gandhi wanted to make a marketable impression he should have had MacDonald assume the position of interim DCPS CFO. Yet, it is only a matter of time before we know if this new interim is an improvement or an imperfection.

If Wepman resigned or was fired...what does his compensation package look like...and that is the million dollar question? If he was fired...does he go to the Office of Appeals...based on the grounds discrimination...remember the black council members called for the white DCPS CFO removal publicly...when it was the black female DCPS CFO in the same hotseat with similar unanswered questions...did the black posse [council] ask for her resignation publicly?

Posted by: PowerandPride | November 12, 2009 3:14 PM | Report abuse

The new CFO has a problem dealing with 'pressure'. I'll leave it there. Those who know him, know what I am speaking of.

Posted by: concernedaboutdc | November 13, 2009 10:19 AM | Report abuse

Noah Wepman is an intelligent, caring, hard working individual caught up in a quagmire....in DCPS the easiest solution is to through one more career under the bus rather than face the reality of the situation. If anyone thinks Mr. Ghandi didn't or doesn't know what the DCPS budget is they don't know Mr. Ghandi. I have personally seen the City override DCPS budgets actually flying in the face of legal orders....don't blame Mr. Wepman...just watch the bus go bump one more time as another good soul gets rolled over simply trying to do an impossible job.....How many more must take a fall for Ms. Rhee's inability to manage a multimillion dollar corporation with little or no such experience....

You want DCPS to work....privatize the whole thing....and get the politics and the mayor the heck out of it…..

Noah you are much better off…….

Posted by: youcanthandlethetruth2 | November 14, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

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