Schools Monday: At Long Last, D.C. Cleans House
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee got out the broom Friday and started the sweeping that three mayors and a battalion of schools superintendents promised, but never accomplished.
About 100 central office workers were summarily axed, escorted from the building by security, given two weeks severance and a big fat thanks for nothing. The TV stations were there to watch with glee, but restrained themselves and aired video only of the fired workers' legs.
The TV producers shouldn't have been so generous. After all these workers have done to relegate D.C. schoolchildren to lives of failure and unemployability, the fired employees should be seen and known to all.
In 1986, when I first started covering the D.C. school system, a very helpful and dedicated official in the central office, then located in the Presidential Building just off Pennsylvania Avenue NW, took me around the sprawling, open-plan room of desks outside the superintendent's office.
I met a couple of dozen people and asked what it was they all did. "Not much," the official told me, and he proceeded to detail the various side businesses that these public employees conducted from their desks. One ran a clothing business, one did catering for school events, one had a contract to provide transportation for disabled kids, one was a Mary Kay cosmetics dealer.
"Where do they get the time?" I naively asked.
"They got nothing but time," came the response.
While tens of thousands of D.C. children languished in schools in which student performance routinely declines the longer a child stays within the system, the central office was a hiring hall for friends, relatives and cronies of those who had come before them. While students sat in decrepit buildings that lacked proper heat, air conditioning, books, science labs or gyms, the central office workers ordered in catering, gave themselves junkets to conferences on tropical islands, and routinely took early slides. Often when I had late-afternoon interviews with hard-working school board members or superintendents, I'd arrive to find that the entire room of special assistants for this or that was empty, even at 4 p.m. The concept of toiling away for the children was unknown.
Even worse than the fact that hardly any heavy lifting was occurring was the attitude that infected the room when people could be bothered to do some work. Children were spoken of with derision bordering on contempt. The vast majority of workers at headquarters lived in the suburbs, and while many were former D.C. teachers and residents, they had long since come to believe that the good, smart people had left the city, and that those who remained behind were dysfunctional and incapable of learning.
Year after year, decade after decade, waves of reformers and politicians swore they would finally address the incompetence and corruption that saturated the D.C. system. They promised to clear out the deadwood and bloat from the central office. But until now, no one had the legal authority, political foundation or spine to do the deed.
While there is already whining and moaning from other District government workers and from those who view a job in the system as a life appointment, Friday's move brought rejoicing from teachers and many parents.
As a D.C. teacher writes on the Post's comment boards, "A co-worker contacted Human Resources two days ago regarding a payroll issue. She left a message and received two return calls in less than two hours. In the past, you were lucky to get a call back at all. It always took a day (with pay) to visit 825 N. Capitol and sit for hours just to get a quick answer. WAY TO GO RHEE!!! Where have you been all my life?"
The sackings are no panacea. The impact of this move on what happens in the classroom will be negligible unless school principals are freed to do their own hiring and manage their own staffs. Smaller-scale firings have occurred before, with precious little result.
But the firings could be a great way both to send the message that employees will be held accountable and to demonstrate to the entire city that Rhee and Mayor Adrian Fenty are serious about remaking the D.C. schools. We'll know that they are indeed serious if we see them continue to devolve authority from the central office to the schools, hire far stronger principals, shut down wasteful and underused facilities, embrace and compete with the charter schools, create a handful of marquee schools designed to lure back middle class parents, crush the special education bar, and send the flotilla of outside consultants sailing off to suck money out of some other system.
Those are huge jobs, and that list doesn't even include the most important changes of all, which come inside the classroom, in the intimate interaction between children and teachers, but this is the best start we've seen in this system in more than two decades. That's 100 down, hundreds more to come.
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