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Rhee: 'Conspiracy theorists' have it wrong

I spoke to Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee Tuesday afternoon, a few hours after she told the D.C. Council that a $34 million surplus in the DCPS budget would help pay for teacher salaries under the new proposed labor contract. Rhee said evidence of the extra money--which is expected to decrease the District's reliance on private funds--was discovered by a senior aide in late February, three months after she laid off 266 teachers. The layoffs were driven, she said, by budgetary forecasts supplied to her last summer by the office of D.C. Chief Financial Officer (OCFO) Natwar M. Gandhi.

Here are excerpts from the 30-minute conversation:

BT: When did you learn about the $34 million?
MR: Late February.
BT: Did you share this with anybody? At the bargaining table? The council?
MR: No.
BT: Do you think in retrospect it might have been better to share this?
MR: Why? What do you mean?

BT: There was so much anxiety about the private funding....
MR: Let me say this. I thought it was good news. The good news was that we were going to be able to allay the fears a lot of people had about the fact that [the contract] was going to be all funded by external dollars and that this wasn't sustainable in the long term. And so in my opinion it was good news.
BT: So why not share the good news?
MR: Because we were in the middle of negotiations....There's sort of a time and a place for all of this.
BT: This revives all the old charges and suspicions that you manipulated and gamed the budget process to get here. To get to this contract.
MR: I understand that there is a group of conspiracy theorists out there...All I can do is go back to facts. So people can conjecture all they want on hearsay and happenstance...What I think is important though is that the [d.c. chief financial officer] and the agency do not report to me. They are an independent agency. These are not DCPS numbers. These are OCFO numbers. So I think it is unfortunate. We had originally thought we needed to raise more [private] money for this contract...It was this huge concern about it not being sustainable in the long term. Now it's fortuitous, a situation that allows us to pay more city dollars. Now we're getting crap for that.
BT: [Paraphrasing critics] All of a sudden at this point, this very sensitive point, on the table is this $34 million surplus...Where did this come from? Why are we hearing about this at this sensitive moment?
MR: Realize that we didn't know about this until very late in the game.
BT: That was the end of February. It is now mid-April
MR: So the end of February we got the first numbers. They sort became got more firm and finalized through the beginning of March. Then once we kind of had all those numbers we came to agreement with the union and came to agreement with the funders....But I'm baffled as to what people think I should have been telling someone and who I should have been telling. When in fact this was all a part of the process we were going through to get to the stage where we have the tentative agreement.. Now what I think is fair is if I'd known [about the surplus] for a year or had this information when we did the [layoffs]. Which was not the case. Or if I'd found this out in February or March and we were heading into budget cycle without a tentative agreement. Then we'd have to share that information.
BT: People say it doesn't pass the smell test.
MR: The people who are sort of saying this, they want to jump to conclusions. They want to assume that somehow we have manufactured this. Again, we have all the documentation that shows that we at every single point were only making decisions based on the information we had in front of us.
BT: Do you have any remorse? Do you feel badly for these teachers [who were laid off just before a surplus emerged]
MR: I think it was unfortunate. And that's why we specially negotiated [a retroactive payment for the fired teachers] with [teachers union president] George [Parker]....I think it was important to George and we thought it made a lot of sense that [laid off] teachers receive a retroactive payment.
BT: Do you feel you've compromised him with his membership?
MR: No. George did everything he could do to fight the RIF [reduction in force]. At the end of the day the most important thing is for people to look forward to say, there are 4,000 people, current members of the WTU [Washington Teachers' Union] who are going to get a significant raise and I think that's a good thing. I think to look backwards and theorize about all this stuff is not going to help is in moving forward forward.
BT: In retrospect, do you feel you could have done anything differently?
MR: I don't see how we could have....In an ideal world we would have been able to gain fiscal certification before we announced the contract....Had this contract been lower profile we would been able to go through the fiscal certification process and say to the teachers, here's the money. Instead of how we're doing it now....If I had managed the finances in OCFO and these events happened the way they had, I would take 100 percent responsibility and say you were right to think we were crazy. But we're only going off information a third party is giving to us....
BT: Is this an argument for having your own chief financial officer?
MR: No I don't want to get into that and do not want to change that. In fact I think it's helpful especially in [economic] times like this to have a third party giving you the numbers.

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By Bill Turque  |  April 14, 2010; 9:53 AM ET
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Next: The $34 million question


The fact that the Washington Post is not headlining this as a MAJOR front page news story is clear evidence that WAPO is in bed with Fenty.

When he loses the mayoral election, what sayeth you ?

Posted by: | April 14, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

Regardless of her somewhat unbelievable statements, a 70+ million dollar mistake in the budget resulting in the loss of 266 jobs is not something that she can just shrug off. Although I agree with her plan for teacher's pay based on merit, i believe she and the TOP 5 other folks connected to those numbers need to be fired.

Posted by: triplehill3 | April 14, 2010 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Ms. Rhee said:
“These are not DCPS numbers. These are OCFO numbers. So I think it is unfortunate. We had originally thought we needed to raise more [private] money for this contract...It was this huge concern about it not being sustainable in the long term. Now it's fortuitous, a situation that allows us to pay more city dollars. Now we're getting crap for that.”

Yes, because it shows the gross incompetence in this city’s government! Doesn’t DCPS double check the figures it gets from OCFO? To have such a huge variance in budget figures within a couple of months indicates that there is a lack of application of internal controls within the finance office. It’s this simple -- figures need to be checked and cross-checked using various methods. It doesn’t appear that this is being done in any consistent manner. I’m all for reform, but what we’re seeing with the budget is real incompetence.
Dr. Ghandi’s credibility has been in the crapper since the tax refund scandal. Why he is still CFO is mind-boggling based on the amount of theft that has occurred under his watch. Ms. Rhee’s credibility has gone right along with him as she has the obligation not simply to accept, but to verify budget data. If DCPS doesn’t verify its budget figures, then who will? As we can see, no one.

Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | April 14, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

I’m sorry for misspelling Dr. Gandhi’s name. Please accept my apologies.

Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | April 14, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Withholding the truth is the same as lying.

Posted by: chucky-el | April 14, 2010 11:47 AM | Report abuse

If a lot of the teachers who were laid off were new teachers, then what was in it for Rhee? She would have hired people she wanted.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 14, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

If a lot of the teachers who were laid off were new teachers, then what was in it for Rhee? She would have hired people she wanted.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 14, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

We get the kind of government we deserve.

Posted by: axolotl | April 14, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

celestun, who said that "a lot of the teachers who were laid off were new teachers"? Maybe SOME of them were new teachers, but wasn't the average age of the teachers who were alid off 48 years old? With an average age like that, I wouldn't think too many of them were new.

Posted by: thebandit | April 14, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse


I don't know who said that. I heard a new teacher who had moved to DC to teach and she was laid off. (this was on the radio back in October or whenever it was) I remember thinking that the teachers wouldn't have an easy time finding another job in the middle of the year. Then I heard Rhee saying they were child abusers and I thought now they will really have a hard time getting a job.

I would just like the facts. I don't live in DC but I am trying to make up my mind about this. On the one hand, you would want to see improvement. On the other hand, I know that teachers in city schools work very hard with few resources and sometimes poor administrations.(Sometimes the administrators in cities can be great also, no offense intended) I can't tell if Rhee is just a blunt, non-political sort of person who keeps getting quoted for blurting things out, or if she is anti-experienced teacher (in order to save money). Like, is she one of these people who doesn't understand that even excellent teachers have trouble with some groups of students? Does she understand that very hard working teachers are dealing with little kids who may excited, or have a bad day, and therefore make the teacher "look bad", but there is really a lot of learning going on? Is she truly concerned about the kids learning and having a good educational experience? Or is she operating on some sort of assumption that the teachers cause all the district's problems, like before her they were actively trying to hire the worst possible teachers or something.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 14, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Anyone who disagrees with her is a sex offender (laid off teachers) or a conspiracy theorist (media).

Posted by: blasmaic | April 14, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

On the front page of my local newspaper yesterday was a story about teachers who have been laid off. Next to the story was a picture of a somber-faced superintendent who offered his apologies to the teachers and said that he knew students would be hurt by this unavoidable action. He pledged to do what he could to rehire the teachers when he had the necessary resources.

The district of which I speak has won the Broad Prize once and was a runner-up several times. Do you think the respect shown to teachers by the district leadership has anything to do with this? I do.

The absolute worst action anyone can take in education is to show disrespect and contempt for the people who deliver it.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | April 14, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse


Your links are mixed up. The one titled "Rhee conspiracy..." goes to the education bailout article.

The one on the Bailout article goes here. You are probably driving the teacher haters who don't want the bailout crazy! LOL

Posted by: celestun100 | April 14, 2010 12:40 PM | Report abuse

Her statements say a lot of things. It was good news and put to rest the fears regarding private donors. Does that mean that was a "not quite in the bag thing"?

It all happened because the CFO does not answer to her? She's been orchestrating these mass firings from the beginning and now that she accomplished her goal "by any means necessary," she puts the blame on somebody and anybody but herself. She takes no responsibility!

This whole conversation belongs on MSNBC, the Ed Show in the "psycho talk" portion of his show.

@ chucky-el: You are so correct!

Posted by: candycane1 | April 14, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Please check out the current proposed budgets on the DCPS website under Budget and Finance.

Teacher’s salaries are still based on an average of 84,000.00 plus dollars.
If you divide the total allotted for teachers by the number of general education teachers you will see that DCPS is still cooking the books.

If these numbers are wrong, why are the numbers being used for the proposed 2011 budgets?


Posted by: dccounselor72 | April 14, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I simply love how she keeps saying "we should move forward" - in other words - move forward and forget that this has even happened. This woman is GREAT at placing blame elsewhere. She needs to be out of a job and Gandhi should have been gone a long time ago.

How can one be a conspiracy theorist when the trust is hitting you in the face.

Posted by: missboo | April 14, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

its amazing how Rhee and her boss Fenty can get go around not giving full details or answers and the voters of DC can still think either of them have the best interest of DCPS @ hand....

Posted by: JeroRobson1 | April 14, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Great catch DCcounselor72!!!!

they are "moving forward" with the same bad information. so is that Rhee's budget or the OCFO's budget.

Posted by: oknow1 | April 14, 2010 1:04 PM | Report abuse

Who cares about "how she feels"? That is such a lame question. So is asking "whether you would do anything different". I don't think Rhee is a mature executive and she is displaying that in her gross errors. She is blind ambition and ego. Read Diane Ravich if you want some good insight on the problem (THERE IS NO DATA supporting the superiority of charter schools, the use of the market to improve schools has done the opposite and elimination of neighborhood schools is central to the failure of public education. Poverty alone, is the only credible predictor of student performance. Teachers need to be respected and promoted as any other PROFESSION!).
The Post is just inexcusable. I put Bill Turque up there with Kojo Nnamde and Carodoza for pitching softballs. They ought to lose their journalism licenses.

Posted by: zebra22 | April 14, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I am REAL GLAD my mother is retiring this year after 40 plus years of teaching in DC public schools. The Fenty / Rhee "shell game" with the teachers & the union is disgusting to say the least !!!

Posted by: dc4life | April 14, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

re: the smell test and - "people who are sort of saying this, they want to jump to conclusions."

I think it smells. I've tried hard to give Rhee the benefit of the doubt, but reading her comments on this pushes so hard up against the limit it may have burst. I'm not sold on the idea of a conspiracy, but I think the episode does point to other large problems that are hard to overlook. You don't have to be looking for a conspiracy to recognize when something stinks.

Posted by: KH20003 | April 14, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

Overhead in the background on Rhee’s end as Bill was hanging up the phone -
Anita Dunn (Rhee’s $100,000 media consultant): Excellent, Chancellor, You got in three “this is good news” in one response and one “good thing” and two “looking/moving forward’s” in another response. This embeds the message that your horrendous lie and cover up will actually be “a good thing going forward.” I doubt if many people will fall for it, but it’s really all we’ve got at this point.

Posted by: efavorite | April 14, 2010 2:09 PM | Report abuse

Since the Wash-pro-rhee-post used this article b/c of it's pro Rhee title,I suggest reading the comments under

Posted by: thelildiva4u | April 14, 2010 2:16 PM | Report abuse

I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it.
I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. I knew it. !

Posted by: GoDoZo | April 14, 2010 2:33 PM | Report abuse

Chancellor Rhee's problem right now is that her awful communication style, combined with bad facts is coming back to haunt her and will be inevitably hurt Mr. Fenty in his reelection bid (while helping the savvy who has the confidence both of the WTU and the parents of many of the 28000 students who attend public charter schools). Ms. Rhee would do well, when asked if she's remorseful, to say something like "yes, and while I can't reverse the decisions that I've made, I would be willing to discuss perhaps using some of the surplus to compensate the RIFed teachers. I just feel awful about this this." She could also take some of the responsibility for the screw-up instead of blaming it on Ghandi. Her ego and inexperience seem to be clouding her judgment. Perhaps if this was not an election year it wouldn't matter so much, but this is very bad for her and, especially her boss. Too bad too, because she's otherwise doing a good job.

Posted by: jmssherman | April 14, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

Is it even possible for her to answer a question directly and honestly? Convenient that this surplus showed up after so many concerns were raised about the private funding for teacher salaries.

Posted by: dcpsteacher1 | April 14, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

The race card that I WILL PLAY and PLAY WITH FACTS is the fact that a large majority of teaches RIF'd/fired were teachers over 40 years-old and African-American. I will not placate Ms. Sun by stating that we are going after Rhee because of her race, hell, Ghandi and Wepman are not black and I think that they are just as culpable, and I want them fired as well.

Further, Mayor Fenty is African American and so are members of the Council who voted for this takeover and I want them gone as well, so please dismiss me with this unabridged CRAP of folk going after Rhee because she is Asian. Maybe we should re-examine the motives that selected and made her Chancellor (because she lacked the credentials to be Superintendent) because she was Asian; now how about that.

Chancellor Rhee, Mayor Fenty, Wepman, and Ghandi were in collusion to present this false set of numbers in order to accomplish the RIF; no one can convince me otherwise and the facts bear out my assertions. Now, all they each say is "oops", "my bad" "sorry for the mistake" but since we now have $34 million just laying around, let's use it for the teacher raises in this new bogus contract since we "cannot count on the dollars promised for those raises since it comes from private sources."

DISHONESTY, MALFEASANCE, COLLUSION, just plain CRIMINAL and none of those words are specific to Asians they are very specific to Rhee and Fenty however.

Posted by: lacairaine | April 14, 2010 3:10 PM | Report abuse

You don't have to be a conspiracy theorist to KNOW that she withheld important & relevant information during the course of negotiations. That's a lie by omission. Why should anyone trust anything she says?

Posted by: loved1 | April 14, 2010 3:20 PM | Report abuse

lacairaine: since you have the numbers handy (right?), to help all understand the context, what percentage of all teachers before the RIF were over 40, and, AA? Then, how do those percentages compare to the demographics of the set of RIF'd teachers? Thanks, in advance.

Posted by: axolotl | April 14, 2010 3:56 PM | Report abuse

To me it would be bad enough to have to be a DC taxpayer and know that I am paying this woman's outrageous salary. But to have the intelligence of every DC citizen insulted by her lies floors me. This woman does not have one shred of integrity, no leadership skills and on top of that treats 250+ people losing their jobs with complete indifference and disdain. That "budgetary shortfall" was one big temporary smokescreen for her to fire scores of people whether they deserved it or not and get around the union. It's time she experiences the same kind of treatment she is so adept at dishing out. It's time for the dictatorial diva Rhee to end the rein of capricious firings, lousy personnel decisions and dishonest budgeting maneuvers. One of the mayoral candidates should have the courage to make his campaign slogan, "DUMP RHEE."

Posted by: Frustratededucator | April 14, 2010 4:33 PM | Report abuse

$34 million accounting error, what I want to know his how many bean counters got fired for this little awshucks. And Nat Ganhdi still has his job....How incompetent does a CFO have to be to get fired in the district.

Posted by: snake_taylor | April 14, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse


What is it about these posts that make you think they are pro-Rhee? Have you read the comments? This article is an interview about what Rhee actually said about the budget. That is important if you want to know what she is doing, whether you are pro-Rhee or not.

I agree with Linda, Retired Teacher. Respect is important and disrespecting teachers just makes it even harder to educate kids.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 14, 2010 4:43 PM | Report abuse

Yeah I guess it is helpful to have a third party give you the numbers when you don't have a clue as to what your payroll cost are. What a joke...

Posted by: snake_taylor | April 14, 2010 4:44 PM | Report abuse

@celestun100…my comment didn’t say post. It said title. Meaning that those who just glance thru the Washpo would assume that 'Conspiracy theorists' are wrong to question her recent folly.

The title doesn’t provide enough information about the real issue of a $34 million dollar mistake. It’s no secret that the Wash-pro-rhee-post is just that pro Rhee. Remember this is a national newspaper and the Fenty/Rhee admin know that it's all about PR to move their agenda.

Posted by: thelildiva4u | April 14, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Well lildiva, you could be right. Sorry I misunderstood you. The articles that are not in favor are always sort of hidden. Why not more articles about Montgomery County, or Prince George's county? How do those superintendents stay out of the press. Everyday it is about Rhee, I hope it works out for DC, but would like to read about other places once in awhile.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 14, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

So Rhee makes up a 20 million shortfall last fall to make an excuse for firing tenured teachers. Now all of sudden there is 34 millon dollars extra?

Why not take the 34 million and put it toward rehiring the people she laid off last fall?

And paying teachers for test scores? That will mean no teacher wants the slow students or the students from homes without parental involvement because they always do lower on test scores.

Posted by: jlp19 | April 14, 2010 5:04 PM | Report abuse

Paying the teachers for test scores would mean that no teacher wants the lower performing kids. That is so obvious but seems to be lost in the so-called educational reform rhetoric that is so popular these days. Which, in my opinion, points to the fact that the reformers are not educators and have no clue about what really happens in a classroom. They must all just imagine themselves back in elementary school as students and think that all the teachers do is turn on the lights.

Posted by: celestun100 | April 14, 2010 5:15 PM | Report abuse

her and fenty and who ever else need to be lock up

Posted by: msfredbass | April 14, 2010 5:33 PM | Report abuse

Hey all

Read G. Parker's letter in today's local editorial page of the WP.

What a world-class suck up.

Posted by: fmurray20011 | April 14, 2010 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Rhee shares nothing with anyone. Transparency is not in her vocabulary and she will do whatever it takes to further her agenda, even lie.

Posted by: madmom1 | April 14, 2010 7:05 PM | Report abuse

Yesterday's revelations from Chancellor Rhee's testimony to the D.C. Council caused me to lose my temper. It turned out to be another object lesson in an old truism. It's seldom productive to speak in anger. My rage lead me to post this wholly unfair and inappropriate comment.

"It's okay! I found $34 million in the pocket of my winter coat. Raises on me!"
--Michelle Rhee
"Get this incompetent, lying, teacher-hating weasel out of our lives D. C. Council members."
--266 former DCPS employees

Please allow me to extend my sincerest apologies to weasels everywhere and to all the mammals the Mustelidae family. I had myself admitted to an anger management rehab facility. I'm a little worried about this place though, the floor is a mess. Chancellor Rhee, still got that broom? I'm in Rm. 101 with some guy named Winston Smith.

Posted by: natturner | April 14, 2010 7:15 PM | Report abuse

Check out the Examiner. Ghandi's office responds. What a mess!

Posted by: candycane1 | April 14, 2010 7:24 PM | Report abuse

Sorry people - Fenty is not going to lose - if a good candidate was running against him maybe - but that is not the case.

Posted by: fredcorgi1 | April 14, 2010 8:07 PM | Report abuse

"Now we're getting crap for that."

This is the second time I've read a story that quoted Rhee using that word. Really! What kind of public school system leader talks like that?

Posted by: dz159 | April 14, 2010 9:37 PM | Report abuse

@dz159: I, too, am bothered by the remark by Rhee "now we're getting crap for that." It is a sign of her immaturity and refusal to admit what she has done. Her best defense is an offense. It is INTUITIVELY OBVIOUS TO EVEN THE MOST CASUAL OBSERVER that Rhee cooked the books to pretend there was a deficit in order to fire 260 teachers and then to suddenly "discover" a math mistake that gives DCPS a surplus. And then she has the nerve to call people "conspiracy theorists!" She is a petulant, nasty child, and this outrage is just beyond the pale, simply beyond the pale. This situation is not old versus new, it's a total scandal.

Posted by: dccitizen1 | April 14, 2010 9:55 PM | Report abuse

The thing is, Rhee's Blackberry toting administration is all about "data" "accountability" "combing out the weak teachers" "no more touchy feely crap". That's cool. We get it. No more Kumbaya. I understand the environment Rhee has been trying to set up. We have to envision ourselves as serious workers, like, we work at an investment bank and it's so intense and cut throat and WE CAN LOSE OUR JOBS ANYDAY if, you know, clients lose money or whatever investment bankers do...but what happens when the CEO oversees a financial error of 34 million dollars? Does the board say "aw shucks, Ms. CEO, we all make mistakes. It's okay- I didn't learn how balance or manage at Harvard, either."

Don't think so.

The budget spreadsheet DCPS uses is so simple to use that...a teacher can figure it out.

Posted by: vnm202 | April 14, 2010 10:13 PM | Report abuse

"ENRON" style book keeping!

Posted by: Jutti | April 14, 2010 11:56 PM | Report abuse

i wonder how you are always the first with the story.... might you be..... the public voice for the Sup's Office.

Posted by: gg1614 | April 15, 2010 6:36 AM | Report abuse

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