Training Program Cut Off After Irregularities Found

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has cut off funding to a teacher training organization that has been paid millions of dollars by the school system, citing questions raised by the city's inspector general and effectively halting the nonprofit operation.

Officials at the Teachers Institute, a literacy training organization funded entirely by District schools and operated by well-known Washington educator Sheila Ford, said they were blindsided by the decision, which went into effect Sunday. They said they had no choice but to immediately suspend their work.

"It's a total, total shock," said Richard Spigler, chairman of the institute, which over the past three years has received more than $6 million from D.C. public schools. "It is very disappointing and very disheartening."

Spigler said officials had given the institute, which works with teachers to promote literacy, no hint about the nature of their concerns. District officials said it would be premature to discuss specifics but said a long-running inspector general's audit is focusing on irregularities reported by The Washington Post in December.

The article detailed how the institute, which has two employees and operates rent-free out of the attic of a school building, had received millions in taxpayer dollars without formal competition for the business.

In 2005, school administrators approved nearly $3 million in initial funding for the fledgling nonprofit. But instead of negotiating a formal contract, officials authorized the payments using a pair of single-page expense vouchers designed for much smaller amounts, such as mileage reimbursements.

The school system's chief academic officer was not told of the payments at the time and said she would have opposed them if she had known. Both school administrators whose signatures appear to be on the expense vouchers told The Post they did not sign them.

Ford had arranged funding for the new group a few weeks before her retirement and while still on the school system's payroll, records and interviews show. Experts said the dual role might have violated federal laws and District regulations designed to prevent contracts from being steered to favored parties.

Ford described her actions as legal and proper.

"I'm not the bad guy here," Ford said in an interview yesterday. "Somebody [at the school system] made a mistake in how they did contracts."

Rhee spokeswoman Mafara Hobson said it is not clear what will become of the training programs put in place by the institute, which uses methods developed by Columbia University professor Lucy Calkins, founder of the Reading and Writing Project. Calkins's approach stresses continuing training for teachers in reading and writing instruction. School staff may choose to build on those methods themselves, Hobson said.

Spigler said that, in recent weeks, public officials had indicated that the final inspector general's report might fault school procedures but would be generally favorable to the institute. On Friday, however, Rhee e-mailed the institute to say that the school system "cannot extend the current contract in its current form" and would not pay the institute for any services after June 8. She wrote that after auditors release their final report, expected in July, the system "would like to try to find a way to continue our relationship if we can."

Nonetheless, Ford said the institute plans to move out of its office and begin transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of books and equipment to the school system. "It's time for me to go," she said.

She stressed that the audit is not complete and that she has not been given a chance to challenge any negative findings.

A written statement from the institute described Rhee's decision as a "travesty."

"Not everything is broken in D.C. public schools. Sheila Ford and her team have been working, successfully, to improve the instruction of children who want to and who can learn," said institute board member Kathy Patterson, a former chairman of the D.C. Council's education committee. "Reading scores are up at schools working with Teachers Institute. This type of change takes time, and the work is just beginning to show traction."

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