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Rhee Has Ambitious Plans But Still No School Budget

By Theola Labbé and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 23, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee testified yesterday that she plans to move the central office out of leased space and into a school building within a few years; boost the number of high school extracurricular activities by fall; and complete teacher contract negotiations by March 30.

Rhee and other school system leaders angered D.C. Council members, however, when they could not detail how much the initiatives would cost. During four hours of grilling, the officials also were unable to say when they would submit an official fiscal 2008 budget or fully explain how an end-of-the-year surplus turned into a projected $100 million deficit.

"We're five months into the fiscal year and there's no official budget. That makes us look bad," Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) told Pamela D. Graham, the schools' chief financial officer, when she failed to specify when the document would be released. "That's no way to run a railroad."

Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D) said he was frustrated by the lack of information, especially because the council approved an $81 million supplemental funding request in December for the schools.

"We're just hard-pressed to know exactly where we are at this point," Gray said.

Testifying at the council's oversight hearing on the schools, Rhee said she is making progress in negotiating with the Washington Teachers' Union. She said they are working on a "differentiated compensation" package, which would pay successful teachers more money. "We have to move toward a system where we are rewarding staff," she said.

Rhee testified that she plans to move the central office from 825 N. Capitol St. NE into a school building when the lease expires next year. The move, she said, would save $8 million a year. She said she has not determined which school would be the new headquarters, among the 23 low-enrollment buildings she plans to close.

She also said she plans to use another vacant building as a teacher-training site, saving the system from renting space to conduct professional development meetings.

But Rhee upset council members when she told them she missed a legally mandated Sept. 15 deadline to hire an independent group to conduct annual evaluations of the schools, and still has not acted. She told Gray a group would be hired within 30 days.

"I don't want to say that this was not important," Rhee testified. "We did not meet the timelines. There is no excuse. We certainly have had a lot that we've had to deal with, from school closures to a lot of other things. The bottom line is that we did not deliver this when we should have."

Gray expressed dismay that Rhee had not moved to terminate central office employees who are not performing up to her expectations. The council last month passed emergency legislation making the employees "at-will" workers, meaning that they could be terminated at any time. She told Gray that so far only 15 workers have resigned on their own.

"The public was left with the impression that there is an egregious glut of do-nothings" in the central office, Gray said.

"I testified on a number of occasions that is not the case," Rhee said. "I am not going to [terminate staff] hastily and in a way that's not respectful of the people."

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