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A Most Wicked Chess Game: The D.C. Schools

The District of Columbia's public school system is many things--too many things. It is educator, babysitter, social worker, police officer, nurse, meals provider, jobs program, and political plaything. And, for too many people, in too many instances, it is also a criminal enterprise.

It is criminal in its neglect of children who too often seem hopelessly out of touch while in the system, yet flourish as soon as they find refuge in another setting. It is criminal in its persistently low expectations of children because they grow up in poverty or have parents who raise them with little regard for the life of the mind. And the system is criminal in the most base and common sense of the word: As this week's installments in the Post's ongoing investigation of the schools demonstrate, the system is riddled with employees who believe their own greed and pleasures are more important than the future of defenseless children.

"We now have a system that makes no sense whatsoever," Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee told a Washington Rotary Club meeting last week. As reported in the Northwest Current, Rhee said there are too many people in the system who have an interest in the schools "staying dysfunctional. They like it that way."

Friday's report on the widespread plunder of school activity funds throughout the system was revolting--another expose of a tragic culture of self-loathing. In schools where children are routinely and mindlessly required to recite moronic chants about how they believe in themselves and how they are achieving despite test scores that shout otherwise, the very people who were employed to invite students into the splendors of rigorous learning were instead stealing from children. They ripped off the kids' money to watch strippers dance for them, to pay for exotic bottles of wine, to dine at fancy restaurants and to stage a gospel concert. Only those who are filled with contempt for the children of their own community could stoop to such a level.

Astonishingly, several of the people Post reporters April Witt and David Fallis wrote about are still employed by the school system or its affiliates.

I unwittingly took part in one piece of the criminal enterprise. In 2003, tipped by a friend to the plight of an ambitious and exciting chess program at a troubled Southeast Washington school, I visited the Moten Center, a program for emotionally disturbed kids at Moten Elementary in Anacostia.

There, I saw an extraordinary man doing what should be ordinary in the D.C. schools, but isn't. Vaughn Bennett was the volunteer chess coach who came in after school hours to teach the complexities of the grand game to kids who had been discarded--tossed out of regular schools because they supposedly could not concentrate or learn. I wrote about Bennett's remarkable success with the kids in his Chess Club, about the sacrifices he made to do without pay what D.C. schools employees had failed to do on the public's dime, and about the Chess Club's need for $2,000 to fill the gap between what the kids had raised through candy and hot dog sales and what it was going to cost to fly 12 kids to Nashville to take part in a national scholastic chess tournament.

As Post readers so often do, you came through. The checks and cash poured into my mail box, and I sat down with Moten principal Herbert Boyd to make certain that the school would set up a separate account for the chess donations, keep careful records and report back to me so I could inform readers what was being done with their money. Over the next months, I received a couple of reports from Boyd and I passed the results along to readers.

But what neither Boyd nor I knew was that the school business manager to whom the principal had delegated authority over the money turned out to be, according to federal prosecutors, a thief. Business manager Sandy Jones ripped off most of the $73,000 that had been donated on behalf of the chess team, according to the Post investigation and federal authorities.

Jones is accused of using the school's ATM card more than 100 times to steal from the chess fund. While Boyd was writing and calling to tell me about his exciting plans to commission a study that could help expand the use of chess instruction as a teaching tool to other schools serving emotionally disturbed students, the chess donations were being sucked out of Moten's account. When he discovered the pillage, Boyd immediately notified school security and the police, but authorities did little or nothing until an anonymous tipster told the D.C. government's inspector general about the missing money.

The school system fired Jones. Fired Boyd, too. Now Jones faces criminal charges. And the children of the Moten chess team never competed in another tournament.

I wish I had followed up the Moten chess story again, but I say that only in retrospect. I'd love to keep a running account of what happens to many of the people I write about, but I'm only able to do that in some cases.

The fact that the police didn't push forward on their investigation into the missing money at Moten is distressing enough. Far worse is the evidence in the Post stories that one government authority after another knew about allegations of stealing from many D.C. schools and yet did nothing about it.

A human being has only so much capacity for outrage. At a certain point, you just get tapped out. I hope I never reach that point about the D.C. schools because there are simply too many children who are being savaged by the people who work in the system. For now, what's got my blood boiling is that those whose calling it is to investigate and punish the wrongdoers found these acts unworthy of their time or effort.

By Marc Fisher |  November 12, 2007; 6:50 AM ET
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Here's another crime, of morals and values at least: the 4 African-American union bosses pictured in the Post last week who are trying to stop Michelle Rhee from restructuring the front office. Good lord, who will stand up for these children and demand a better system if their own elders care only about jobs and a paycheck?

Posted by: DCPS parent | November 12, 2007 8:35 AM

The public school system provides jobs for government employees.

It is not designed to educate children.

Posted by: stewart | November 12, 2007 8:44 AM

What's the big deal? This is the way things run in DC. You should be used to it by now.

You want things to change? Stop voting party lines and start voting for the best person for the job.

So, c'mon Marc. Be realistic. You want fair - leave DC.

Posted by: Anonymous | November 12, 2007 8:51 AM

In some ways the DCPS reminds me of a cargo cult. They build a schoolhouse, fill it with desks and chairs, hire "schoolteachers" and a "principal", but that doesn't make for education. We've simply assembled all the trappings of an educational undertaking without really understanding how that works. I guess that's what Michelle Rhee meant when she said "Right now we have a system that makes no sense whatsoever."

Posted by: HarpoDC | November 12, 2007 9:08 AM

You think voting party lines is the problem? I don't think so. DC Council member Carol Schwartz, an alleged Republican, is set to block Rhee from getting hire/fire power in the front office. It's a turf battle between the Mayor and Council. The kids get left behind. It's time for Schwartz to go. And it's time for African American parents to riot in the streets in opposition to Unions and others who are in favor of the status quo.

Posted by: DCPS parent | November 12, 2007 9:14 AM


When parents don't care how their kids do in school, then no amount of money, well meaning teachers or well meaning articles will change the outcomes. How sad for the children of DC Public Schools.

Posted by: HoldingTank | November 12, 2007 9:46 AM

holdingtank-

Maybe the reason the parents don't care is because they came thru the same pathetic school system?

I get so sick and tired of people (mostly teachers) who continue to point the finger at the parents. Get over it. It is what it is. Look at LA, NYC, Miami Dade- they stopped the blame game a long time ago an dthey are moving in the right direction.

These kids have been dealt a lousy hand and we need to help them.

Posted by: takebackourschools | November 12, 2007 9:54 AM

The entire DC government was/is a patrongage system since the Barry machine was initiated. That means you were hired based on politics not to do a job. That cynicism spreads to a how much can I rip off for myself system. Frankly, I have to see it as some kind of protection system also: I'm not arresting the other person because they will see how bad that I'm doing my job. What else makes sense? In my humble opinion, they should let the Feds take it over again. If I lived in DC and had kids, I would move out, or I would encourage the Feds to take over the school system. You are right to admit complicity in some of this Marc - you defend DC and chastise VA. Well, this is what you get as I have long said: criminal government and administration in the city you live in.

Posted by: steven7753 | November 12, 2007 9:59 AM

Every time I read one of these articles about DCPS, I find myself thinking about how DC Home Rule was such a bad idea after all.

Posted by: DCguy | November 12, 2007 10:36 AM

I was there at Moten at the time as a Service Provider. I personally know of the hard work and commitment of the Principal of that school. He was very open when we returned in September about the severity of his wife's condition and that he expected us to do our jobs to the best of our ability because he would have to care for his wife and manage the responsibilities of his job. Everyone, including his superiors were well aware of this. When he reported to officials severe discrepencies, he could not get the cooperation for a proper investigation into the theft, which if had of been done in a timely fashion, would have shown clearly how the funds came up missing. In addition to that, if there were proper controls in DCPS that were made to be followed, this type of theft could have never happened. Lastly, many of the staff at the school experienced being "swindle"---but that's a whole other story.

Posted by: wandamorsell | November 12, 2007 11:16 AM

Stop using corruption to make larger statements about the Barry era, the validity of home rule, etc. By doing that, you miss the point of what's needed.

As I understand it, life in Washington was no piece of cake under the congressional commissioner system (when southern congressmen controlled DC with contempt for its citizens) or under the territorial government, patronage and corruption of Boss Shepherd.

But all of that is irrelevant. We've got to move away from all this fingerpointing and focus on the disaster that is DCPS -- soon. I don't care about what happened when Marion Barry was mayor: As a citizen of this city, I want the corruption to end NOW. Those government workers who steal (or fail to root out fraud, in the case of DCPS) are wasting my tax dollars, and I don't send them in for city employees to flout the law.

What matters is this: If we want a better city and a better metropolitan area, a key to that is to clean up the schools. Everyone else has a role, too -- parents, clergy, other community people and so on. But for now, let's talk about DCPS.

Let me break it down: Better schools=better opportunity for all=families in the city=tax base=less unemployment, better services, less crime.

THAT must be the goal, not this regurgitated crap about home rule and Marion Barry (and the commissioners, and Boss Shepherd).

We've got to focus on what can be done NOW to destroy this dysfunctional system and rebuild it to prepare kids to compete in the 21st century. And we've got to understand that it's not going to happen overnight, and that corruption or half-hearted effort sells everyone short -- city and suburb, regardless of race, creed or culture.

I'm sick of the corruption I keep reading about, but I want the Post to keep shining the light on it. We need this to end. We are better than this.

Posted by: dirrtysw | November 12, 2007 12:07 PM

Outrage needs an outlet. In this city of lawyers, why can't a donor file a civil action against Sandy Jones?

In this city of political organizers, why aren't their protests at department stores and restaurants and strip clubs who profited from funds stolen from school children?

In this city of muckrakers, how come the personal details of these thiefs-- their home addresses, perp walk photos, etc -- don't get published.

Posted by: emrj | November 12, 2007 12:18 PM

Sorry emjr, that might hurt someones feelings. Make them feel less "empowered". Or heavens forbid, be considered "racist".

Posted by: GrewUpInDCLongAgo | November 12, 2007 1:04 PM

Yes, dirtysw, we do have to move into the future, but...we also need to know what happened in the past. This is not a football game, where the coach can simply say, after a particularly bad loss, that we need to put this behind us and move forward.

It's real life. It's the lives of these children. It's the money and reputation of the District of Columbia. If you cannot go back and fix systemic problems, they will simply recur. Yes, you may even have to go back to Boss Shepherd.

Posted by: mikes | November 12, 2007 1:13 PM

I don't think that it is racist to recall that Marion Barry rather forcefully encouraged the expectation that a government job was something of a birth right for DC citizens. I remember the culture shock I experienced when I was working for a federal agency and our office took on three DC high school students for work-study. I remember one girl in particular who took no pains to hide the fact that she didn't want to do anything. I'll never forget when a middle age secretary took her aside to tell her that she needed to do some (!!) work, and the young damsel responded "I'm getting paid so I must be working." For several years I worked in the Library of Congress schlepping books where most of my colleagues were fresh out of DC high schools. Again, almost immediately, 18 and 19-year old kids turned into instant sloths. I don't see the pattern here as genetic, but cultural. These kids were taught that once you have that government job there is nothing anyone can do to you. Noting the ages of some of the DC employees recently in the news, I bet most of them are alumni of the Marion Barry Summer Job program. I don't miss the progressive intentions of trying to funnel resources to teens, given them a little sense of pride, and teach them some important lessons about work and responsibility. Only problem was that the last part of the equation was missing.

Posted by: Paul | November 12, 2007 2:01 PM

To mikes: I respectfully disagree. We are together on the part about this being about children's lives. Where we split is on the "looking backward" part.

So many times it seems people want to look back in order to blame "the other" -- someone of a different race, class or culture -- and get lost in that because they try to use it to say DC isn't ready for self-government.

How hard is it to say, "From here on, we will build a school system that educates its children, and anyone who interferes with that mission is not welcome here"?

Do we really need a lesson in local history (more than a commitment to education or proper use of tax monies) to say that people who break the law will be punished -- and then act on it?

If the answer to that question is yes, then we're much more worse off than we think. If that's the case, looking back to understand what's wrong is (to me) like trying to determine what caused a three-alarm house fire while it's still blazing and people are trapped inside.

Why not save the people and put the fire out first? Then determine the cause.

(BTW, thanks for your counterpoint.)

Posted by: dirrtysw | November 12, 2007 2:27 PM

If you are a DC resident and you care about the future of the city's children, please email DC Council members at membersonly@dccouncil.us. Tell them to vote to make workers in the front office "at will" employees so Michelle Rhee can do more than shuffle poor performers around the system. Rhee is the real deal, people, and she is working overtime to clean up this mess. She is demanding that people do their jobs; she is demanding accountability. She needs to be able to terminate underperformers for ANY reason as long as it is not discriminatory. That's the way the rest of the country works, folks. And I emphasize, WORKS. So while we're typing away here, let's engage in a little democracy and, for the children's sake, send a message to the DC Council.

Posted by: DCPS parent | November 12, 2007 3:26 PM

Has there been any progress recently in the efforts to allow the DC government to take on the prosecutions of people like Ms. Jones? Fenty talked big about expanding the powers of the counsel's office after the election last year, but as far as I know he's done nothing since.

It seems such a waste that the feds have to step in to handle such petty matters solely because the District government can't be trusted to get the job done.

Posted by: athea | November 12, 2007 4:16 PM

Come on, Carol Schwartz is no Republican. The only reason she's even listed as such is because, as I understand it, by law there has to be at least one "Republican" on the DC Council. What DC really needs is a Rudy Giuliani Republican to come in and clean house. You go to the people in charge, fire them all, and tell the people under them they have 6 months to clean up the mess or they'll get fired too. The problem is the Democratic Party is beholden to the city employees unions, starting with the teacher union. It's a jobs machine for lazy bureaucrats who can't hack a real job, and it spreads its dues money liberally among Democratic politicians and Carol Schwartz the "Republican" to get elected. If DC residents would give a Giuliani-like reformer a chance in DC they might find out what New Yorkers found out -- sometimes you just have to clean house.

Posted by: Brien | November 12, 2007 11:46 PM

Rhee is chomping at the bit to "clean house" and get rid of the absurdities in the teachers' union contract. Fenty backs her 100% on both counts, and was elected by DC residents primarily to clean up the muck that is DCPS. We've got our Giulianis -- the Council just needs to get out of their way. (And by the way, Giuliani didn't get any concessions from the teachers' union while he was Mayor, that fell to Bloomberg and Klein.)

Posted by: DCPS mom | November 13, 2007 6:22 AM

Mr. Vaughn Bennett is a fighter for the youth of the city as is Mr. Marc Fisher.

It is always painful to see when an innocent group -- here being the chess team -- is taken advantage of by those who are guilty -- here being the dirty rotten scoundrels of the "system".

It is a carnival atmosphere.

Posted by: DreamCity4Life | November 13, 2007 8:34 AM

Unfortunately, too many who have been given jobs with DC schools think it's their due to "get paid" as they say in the parlance of the inner city.

DC continues to prove it is unable to function as a real society because too many of its citizens are more concerned with "getting theirs" than putting in a honets day's work and trying to improve their city and its future citizens.

My parents grew up during the depression. As my Mother used to say, "Just because we were poor, didn't mean we had to live like pigs or steal. We had pride and self respect." Unfortunately, DC citizens have neither.

Posted by: Dave | November 13, 2007 8:51 AM

This is one of the most important articles I've seen in a long time.

Over a decade ago, in Barry's featherbedding time, I used to work with kids expelled from the DC school system, in an alternative school under contract with the city. The staff cared and, to a surprising extent, succeeded in helping turn around many young lives.

But, as one example, the school system assigned social workers who sat around drinking coffee and playing cards all day. They and the system as a whole did nothing for the kids but reinforce their extremely low sense of worth and kill off any hope they might have had. The system itself was riddled with abusive, uncaring teachers at the elementary level ... and, of course, so many of the kids came from what were in fact not really families at all.

I am hopeful the new administration will be given the power to clean house -- rid itself of the incompetents, and - yes -evil-doers (passive and active), and care.

To accompish tis will take political courage -- and smarts. I pray someone has both.

Posted by: Steve | November 13, 2007 1:49 PM

My name is Herbert A. Boyd, Jr. and am the former principal of the Moten Center. I am compelled to contribute the the blog in a effort to clarify issues that led to my dismissal and the theft of thousands of dollars from the Moten Center student activity while I was in charge of the program.
I want to thank Mr. Fisher for his efforts to assist in raising the money through his initial 2003 article and most importantly for the objective manner in which he is currently presenting the facts to his readers. I take this opportunity to appologize to him on behalf of the faculty and staff of the Center and further recognize the pain he must be feeling as he presents the facts to the readers and supporters who responded to his call in 2003
The Post article briefly discussed that my wife was treminally ill which distracted me from my supervisory responsibilities at the Center. The fact is that my wife, who we thought had survived breats cancer diagnosed 7 years previously, had a re-occurance immediately after the chess tournament in Nashville. This time her cancer was in her brain and nervous system. For anyone has experienced what we did can surely identify with what we were faced with. Therefore indeed I was not available to the Center because ALL of my attention was focused on her care and comfort.
It was during this period that the funds were stolen from the activity fund.
Prior to that, the Center was a well tuned organization, and I was comfortable with delegating all of the responsibilities of running the prograsm to competent professionals and para professionals.

Developing class schedules, ordering books and materials , registration of students, greeting parents, attending meetings, managing crisis and attending to the day to say management were all responsibilities detailed to competent staff. All business matters and stewatship of the finances were delegated to the business manager who by policy had access to all accounts and thus had the responsibility to manage that aspect of the center.
I might also add that my 17 year old daughter was a senior in high school and was preparing for her prom, graduation and entering her freshman year in college. With my wife's illness I had to function as a virtual single parent and attempt to keep as much normalcy and support for my daughter,our only child.

I have never sought sympathy merely understanding and justice; something I NEVER GOT FROM DCPS.

I was fired and charged with Willful Neglect of Duty, Coersion and Dishonesy.

If you will allow me, please let me explain the Charge of coersion.
Prior to Mr. Fisher's article in May of 2003 we did not have the money to finance the trip. I was determined to at least get my kids to Nashville so I charged each and every Southwest Airline ticket. I had no idea that we would get all of the donations that we did because it was prior to the article; thus I had no idea if I would get my money back or not.

During the investigation, the investigators were told that I insisted on being given 3,000 dollars for reasons unknown. The investagators knew the truth this as I presented my credit card statement as evidence. Never was that mentioned in the report and I was still charged with coersion.

Finally, as a Licensed social worker, I function under a code of ethics that I have respected during my entire 30 year professional career. A career that I have dedicated to improving the quality of life for children, youth and families. As a School administrator, whose parents were also school administrators, I am comfortable with the fact that I have indeed had an imact on my chilren their parent and my community.

Oh by the way, under my leadership, the Moten Center was recognized as one of the most effective and most effeciently run progams for emotionally disturbed children in thr region. I urge anyone to examine the facts and the data.

Posted by: H. A. Boyd, Jr. | November 13, 2007 10:50 PM

If this set of problems along with the tax and revenue criminals does not tip the balance in favor of cleaning house, then it's time for all of us DC taxpayers to storm the District building and demand change. We're paying for a much better government and system than we're getting. It's time for us to clean house of all the incompetent, underperforming, "I'm in it for me and my fat paycheck" people. We need a real functional government with safeguards built in to protect the taxpayers and voters. Clean out tax & revenue, clean out the schools, clean out the MPD (they're one of the biggest on the take for no work gangs going), Fire & EMS, DMV, DPW,... If Fenty can't do it, then his head should roll with the rest of them.

Posted by: talkin' bout a revolution | November 14, 2007 11:42 AM

I too worked at Moten Center. Mr. Boyd was correct in his blog. He had systems in place and the program was functioning very well. We were,Thanks to people like Mr. Boyd, Christian, Young,and a host of other great staff ,receiving "platinum standard" yearly. Mr. Boyd had plans to ask GW students again to do a study on the effects chess have on students learning , he wanted to get other sudents in the program involved with the chess team and he wanted to get ideas from other people on making our program a model special ed program.
After the chess trip I was made aware that Mrs. Boyd's cancer became very aggressive and she had to seek treatment and eventually had to be hospitalized .His mother also needed medical attention . I knew because I visited the home to offer my help.Mr. Boyd was not totally focused on Moten. His wife, who he dearly loved , was now suffering from a terminal illness.Now to add insult to his families injuries, he was fired during a very volatile time in his personal life .
I have not heard anyone say this but I believe GREED is one of the issue we are facing relative to the monies being stolen from DCPS.The faces GREED possesses is varied.Now augment greed with individual demons.
Also it is to easy to say why DCPS is dysfunctional.However, when you change administrations like you change tires you allow gaps to occurs, hence, you have people who have intent to steal and when they do,feel they can get away with it because they believe no one is looking. That person has poor judgement. When people struggle with personal struggles, their greed becomes criminal and more than one suffers.In this case needy students and a great staff has suffered .
My concern with the Fenty/Rhee regime is some good hard workers will suffer and be included as being the ones who are part of the problem. When a system is dirty it is hard to see who is clean unless the person wore plastic before they jumped in the dirt!Rhee has to be careful too on who she fires and who she let in to replace the fired workers.She can make the big mistake of previous administrators and create a bigger mess.
DCPS has a lot of cleaning to do.You had a man who was cleaning his side of the yard.He proved it year after year.We need more Mr. Boyds, Fentys, Rhees and other people who want to see our students achieve at their highest.we need proactive servant leaders not reactive psuedo-self-center people.If you want a better system educate people and get away from historical behaviors and old administrative systems and impliment system that will be viable for every department in DCPS.They have a monumental task ahead but DCPS can change and be the best school system in the world.
I BELEVE!!!

Posted by: Usher | November 15, 2007 1:10 AM

I too wish to support Mr. Boyd. I know him as a person that would do what he could to make sure that our children have a chance to stay in school and get an education. In the old days we used what was we could to help our children learn. The thing is to keep them in school use what you can to keep them interested belive you me they will learn. That is what we ask of our teachers. Do want ever you can for our children to learn. If it takes chess so be it!!!!

Posted by: Morgan | November 15, 2007 2:51 PM

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