By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is preparing plans to fire up to several hundred employees over the coming year, part of a major restructuring of the school system's central office aimed at streamlining operations, District government sources said.
As the initial piece of her strategy, Rhee has begun drafting legislation that would ask the D.C. Council to suspend personnel laws so that the chancellor would have the authority to terminate employees without having to reassign them to other jobs. Rhee also has been meeting with council members to lay the groundwork for their political support, members said.
The chancellor's actions are aimed at taking on the intractable central bureaucracy of the 50,000-student system, blamed for scuttling generations of reforms, said council members who have met with Rhee. During her informal chats with parents, community meetings and a two-day teacher training event last week, Rhee has vowed to create a central administration that is more receptive and responsive when dealing with parents, teachers and principals.
In past years, for example, the central office has allowed thousands of school facility work orders to languish, failed to deliver paychecks to teachers on time and had trouble supplying principals with supplies and equipment.
Rhee is exploring whether she has the legal authority to fire employees without council action. But she is aiming, if necessary, to present a formal legislative proposal to the council by the time members return from summer recess Sept. 15, said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the plans are being formulated. Rhee is said to have the full backing of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who fired Superintendent Clifford B. Janey and replaced him with Rhee in June.
Council member Kwame R. Brown (D-At Large) said Rhee explained during a recent meeting with him that she wants to bring in new upper-level managers and downsize the central administration by as much as 30 to 40 percent.
The central office, as defined by Rhee and her deputies, has 700 to 900 employees, although the exact number has been difficult for the chancellor to pin down, the government sources said.
"It's not rocket science to know the central office is disorganized. Everyone knows that," Brown said. "The question is, to what extent is it disorganized, and what is the solution? Clearly, I need to see more specifics."
Another council member who has met with Rhee declined to speak for attribution because the conversation was private. But this person called the potential firings a "TNT issue" that could be met with skepticism by members whose constituents would stand to lose their jobs.
"I don't know what the [council's] mood would be," the member said.
Furthermore, the Council of School Officers, the union that represents some central office employees, could choose to fight any council action to hand the chancellor more authority to fire employees. Bernard C. Lucas Sr., president of the union, did not return a call for comment yesterday.
Typically, central office employees who are removed from a position have the contractual right to be placed in a lower-ranking position in the system while maintaining their salary. These rights have hampered superintendents who have sought in the past to downsize the school administration and remove poorly performing employees.
Joslyn N. Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, predicted that the union "probably won't stand on the sidelines" if the council is asked to suspend union contracts.
"This is a question of political will and political power," Williams said. "That's what it boils down to."
It is not clear whether Rhee has begun to identify employees who would be targeted for termination, although she has removed Allen Chin, longtime director of the D.C. school system's athletics program.
In the meantime, two auditing firms hired by the city are examining the school system's finances and operations. Their findings, due next month, are expected to offer a road map for the restructuring efforts.
The government sources said Rhee is acting quickly in part because she has been trying to recruit high-level managers to replace Janey's top deputies. Several of her top candidates have told her they will join her staff only if they will be allowed to remove under-performing staffers, the sources said.
Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), a strong ally of the labor unions, said Rhee mentioned her restructuring plans during a recent meeting but did not go into detail.
"I'm trying to get an honest perception about what the obstacles would be," Thomas said. "We talked about labor union roles. I want to ask her about issues of [the] rights of employees who are fired. Where would they go? What would they do? How would people in the system be evaluated? All of those are issues of ongoing conversations."
So far, Rhee has followed a pattern typical of new leaders brought in to act as "change agents," said Sheila L. Margolis, an Atlanta-based consultant who has worked on workplace issues for dozens of governments and private companies. Rhee is assembling a senior staff and is assessing employees.
Her challenge, Margolis said, is to not discard talented employees as she enacts major changes.
"The question is, is there any thread of positive energy that she could sustain as she goes forward in a new direction?" said Margolis, who is not working with the D.C. government. "If you can find that, the change is not as radical."
Meanwhile, the District's new Office of the State Superintendent of Education made available yesterday its proposed transition plan for public scrutiny. The plan describes how the educational roles now performed by a variety of other groups and agencies will be shifted to the new body, which was set up under this year's Public Education Reform Amendment Act.
In its draft plan, the agency said its essential areas of policy concern would include early-childhood education; educator quality; preparation for post-secondary education; and early, family and adult literacy.
Areas for action would include efforts to revamp special education, to improve the District's access to federal grants and to bring about more effective use of data to guide educational performance and policy.
Citing problems including low academic performance levels in most schools and poor service delivery for special-needs students, the agency said it intended "to ensure that dramatic improvements in student achievement occur."
Fenty and other officials will hold a public discussion of the plan tomorrow from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Burrville Elementary School on Division Avenue NE.
Staff writers Theola Labb? and Martin Weil contributed to this report.