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D.C. Council Approves Rhee as Schools Chief
Members Also Confirm Construction Director, but Salaries Draw Fire

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The D.C. Council unanimously confirmed Michelle A. Rhee as chancellor of the D.C. public schools yesterday despite concerns about her lack of experience and the $275,000 salary that will make her the highest-paid school leader in the Washington region.

Rhee, 37, who takes over a system with 55,000 students and a $1 billion annual budget, was a teacher for three years in Baltimore and has never been a superintendent. But she is nationally known for founding and heading the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that recruits and trains teachers in urban districts.

Some council members, who voiced initial skepticism, said they were won over by Rhee's dedication to children and her efforts to reach out to parents and residents across the city. Rhee, who was at the council meeting when she was confirmed, rushed out of the council chambers to a phalanx of media. She said filling 14 principal vacancies and readying schools for the first day of classes on Aug. 27 are priorities.

"There's not a lot of time to sleep," she said.

She said little about her controversial salary except that the chancellor's position is an "important job."

Some of the council's most contentious discussions yesterday centered on the large salaries being paid to Rhee, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, Fire Chief Dennis L. Rubin and Allen Y. Lew, who was also unanimously confirmed as executive director of the new Office of Public Education Facilities Modernization.

Rhee's salary package includes a $41,250 signing bonus and an annual $27,500 bonus if she meets student achievement and other goals. Lew will also make $275,000 and gets the same signing bonus.

There is a $179,000 cap on salaries, and the mayor must request a waiver from the council to pay more to an employee. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) asked the council to approve legislation that would give him the authority to offer up to $279,000 -- the pay negotiated in April by Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi -- to the heads of agencies without council oversight. The council voted to limit the exemption to Rhee, Lew, Gandhi, Lanier and the medical examiner.

The council also approved a plan to temporarily raise the salaries of Lanier and Rubin, who both negotiated contracts that don't require them to contribute to get their full pensions -- a benefit that council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large) said is not afforded to any other city employee. Lanier's salary will jump to $191,531 from $175,000, and Rubin's to $176,550 from $165,000, to cover their pensions for 90 days while the council decides whether the city should continue the pension plan outlined in their contracts.

Council member Carol Schwartz (R-At Large) said Rhee would be earning much more than the city's highest-paid teachers, who have at least 20 years of experience and doctorates but who make less than $90,000 annually. Schwartz also said she still has reservations about Rhee's experience.

Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said he found Rhee's résumé refreshing and her salary justified. He likened the school system to a private sector company and said students are "the most important product of this city."

"We're going to shortchange this? We're going to nickel-and-dime this?" he asked. "I have no concern about her salary. I have no concern about her not being a professional bureaucrat."

Rhee was accompanied yesterday by several city officials, including Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso, whose council confirmation has been delayed until at least September. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he decided to postpone the confirmation because he wants more time to assess Reinoso's performance. Reinoso, a former school board member, has taken the blame for a plagiarized education report but refused last month to tell the council whether he penned the document.

In other business, the council voted 12 to 0 to initially approve legislation that will curb the city's payday loan industry, which was criticized by some council members yesterday as "legal loan-sharking."

Under the legislation, check-cashing firms could charge a maximum of about 90 cents for a $100 loan repaid within two weeks. Currently, customers pay $15 to $16 on the small loan. The rate change puts check-cashing firms on par with other lending institutions, such as banks and credit unions.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who originally co-sponsored the legislation with council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), abstained. He said he has learned more about the firms and believes that they would not be able to operate under the legislation. "We are putting this industry out of business," he said. "Over 400 jobs will be lost. . . . Eight million dollars will be lost to the economy."

Cheh said in an interview that she was frustrated with Barry's flip-flop and with Gandhi, who prepared a statement showing that the legislation would result in a loss of $527,000 in tax and fee revenue from fiscal 2008 to 2011.

The council will take a final vote in the fall when members return from a summer recess.

In other business, the council approved emergency legislation to establish a moratorium that will limit the number of taverns in Adams Morgan to 10 in the future. There are currently 11 restaurants that have tavern licenses, which allow them to serve much more alcohol than food. Six pending applications will still be considered for approval.

Some residents say the proliferation of tavern licenses is contributing to an increase in violence and loitering in the neighborhood. But restaurant owners say they are just trying to stay afloat in a neighborhood where customers often come for drinks and the nightlife, which prevents them from meeting a city law that says a restaurant's revenue must include 45 percent in food sales or $2,000 per seat in food sales annually.

Enforcement of that law was set to begin Oct. 1, but the council approved legislation to delay enforcement while it studies whether restaurants can meet the revenue requirements.

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