Wednesday, May 5, 2010

D.C. schools chief Michelle Rhee shifts blame when time to judge own performance

By Robert McCartney
Sunday, May 2, 2010; C03

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee seldom misses a chance to stress that teachers and students must be judged by their performance. It's one of her core principles. Results count most.

Thus, I thought it was reasonable to ask Rhee how she evaluated her own performance in the last two weeks of flips and flops and near-total confusion over whether the city actually has enough money to cover pay increases promised under a tentative new teachers contract.

I posed the question during a five-minute interview Friday at the end of an all-day D.C. Council hearing at which she testified.

Rhee's answer? It was somebody else's fault.

"I don't manage the budget," she said. That pointed the finger directly at the District's chief financial officer, Natwar Gandhi.

The most that Rhee would concede was: "We could have done a better job of communicating." She declined to expound.

So much for accountability.

Although Gandhi shares a hefty portion of the blame, it's hardly too much to ask that Rhee make sure she can explain broadly how the city's going to pay for a historic, nationally acclaimed teachers contract before she rolls it out. Instead, nearly a month after the announcement, the District is at least $33 million short.

Rhee wants teachers evaluated rigorously for their supervision of the classroom. Surely it's fair to judge the boss for her overall supervision of something as basic as dollars and cents.

Rhee said she wasn't getting information she needed from Gandhi. He's been the CFO since she arrived. It's been nearly three years. Why hasn't she figured out how to make that work?

The result is that the bizarre uncertainty over the funding has overshadowed what should have been a celebratory moment.

Writing this is a comedown for me. I lauded Rhee in my column three weeks ago for negotiating the contract, which would make landmark changes that should improve D.C. public education. I haven't deserted the chancellor. I still think it's vital to find the money, ratify the deal and let her get on with transforming the schools.

Still, even though Rhee wasn't solely at fault, the follies again illustrate some of her weaknesses.
First, as kindergarten teachers describe some students, she doesn't play well with others. We already knew of Rhee's public spats with teachers, the union and the D.C. Council. Now add the city's independent financial czar to the list.

Rhee excluded Gandhi's representative from her regular senior staff meetings on grounds that he was only an interim appointment. Also, she didn't get the CFO's input from the start on roughly how much money would be available for the contract. (Under questioning, she acknowledged "in hindsight" that would have been desirable.)

Second, Rhee's introduction of the contract showed lack of preparation. In particular, she didn't work out how to handle the use of private foundations' grants, a feature of the contract for which she was directly responsible.

Rhee's haste cuts two ways. On one hand, she personifies the urgency that many reformers feel about the need to fix education. On the other, Rhee sometimes seems to care too much about being first in implementing various changes, to fit the image she's created for herself as a preeminent champion of reform.

These traits are not new. A U.S. Education Department review panel noted them in March when it rejected the District's application for federal Race to the Top school reform funds. It faulted the District in part for being too concerned with obtaining "endorsement for its human management style, to showcase the District's speed in achieving results and to become a national model."
The panel said that shifted the focus from "the detail and attention needed to build the capacity of staff to become great teachers and leaders."

Rhee's and Gandhi's inability to clarify the funding would be comical if it weren't so important.
First the two went back and forth on whether the school system was running an unexpected surplus that could help cover teachers' raises. Then Gandhi said he couldn't certify the contract if it depended on private grants that could be revoked.

The problem still isn't resolved, but I'm confident the money will be found eventually. "This sounds very doable," said the council's Finance Committee chairman, Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).

Gandhi's missteps are not new. He bore responsibility for failing to catch a mid-level tax bureaucrat while she embezzled $48 million over nearly two decades. Now we learn that his office doesn't even provide Rhee with what should be routine monthly reports on how her actual spending compares to the budget.

"The CFO has failed for 10 years to come to terms with basic infrastructure issues. . . . That speaks volumes," said council member David Catania (I-At Large).

Council member Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) concisely summarized the two officials' shortcomings in a comment to Gandhi, who also testified.

"The chancellor doesn't take you seriously or doesn't believe what you say, and you're not aggressive enough to put your foot down and say this is the way it should go, to convince her of the financial status of the D.C. public school system," Alexander said.

While Rhee and Gandhi have been at odds for months, it was especially problematic that they didn't collaborate more closely just before announcing the contract. Rhee said that happened mainly because of fear that the union membership would learn about the deal prematurely from the press.

"Here's the biggest problem: If we had faith that we could have gone through the fiscal certification process without any leaks, then we would have done that," she told me.

So that's the bottom line. When things go wrong, blame the media.

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