FIXING D.C.'S SCHOOLS Lessons in Spending

A $2.9 Million Payout, With a Few Shortcuts

Sheila Ford co-founded the Teachers Institute in her last months as a D.C. principal.
Sheila Ford co-founded the Teachers Institute in her last months as a D.C. principal. (James A. Parcell - Twp)
By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 21, 2007

As an elementary school principal in Washington, Sheila Ford had to adapt to the haphazard D.C. public school bureaucracy.

So when she decided to retire in 2005 and help start a nonprofit organization to train teachers, it didn't shock her that school officials authorized nearly $3 million for her Teachers Institute on a single day, shortly after she made a half-hour presentation. Nor was she surprised when she picked up the first check -- for $1 million -- and there was no contract laying out the agreement.

"If you're going to do business" in the school system, she said, "you do it the way you are told."

When Ford went back for documentation, she received a single-page expense voucher.

"We didn't know -- what should we do with this? What do you call this?" said Richard Spigler, the institute's chairman. "The issue to us was, it is not a contract. What are we going to do?"

The institute considered giving back the money but ultimately kept it and went ahead training D.C. schoolteachers in a new method of reading and writing instruction. The organization, which has two employees and operates rent-free out of the attic of a school building, has received more than $5.5 million from the D.C. schools since mid-2005.

There was no formal competition for the initial funding, according to a schools spokeswoman, nor was there a formal contract. The school system's chief academic officer wasn't told of the payments, and just as she was putting one reading program in place, other school officials were giving millions of dollars to the institute to train teachers in another. Both people whose signatures appear to be on the form that authorized the funding say they did not sign it.

"No one wants to own up to the signatures," said schools spokeswoman Mafara Hobson. "We paid over a million dollars, and I can't figure out how and why."

The lax financial controls were "scary," said Hilda Ortiz, the school system's chief academic officer until this year. "There was no written policy. There was nothing."

Ortiz said she wasn't initially told about the arrangement with the institute, despite her job overseeing instruction. She speculated that the funding was an end run around her plans.

"It wouldn't have been something that I would have signed on for -- I just didn't see enough evidence that it worked," she said of the institute's training technique. She said the institute's program, which initially focused on 15 schools, also renewed a cycle of fragmented teaching approaches in the city schools.

Ford defended her program, modeled after one developed by a Columbia University professor who has worked with systems across the country. The institute has received praise from a number of D.C. principals for its work with hundreds of teachers.

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