By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008; C04
D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, seeking more than $200 million from the private sector over five years, has presented potential donors with a plan that offers significant new details about her vision for transforming the city's foundering education system.
Among the questions addressed in the 13-page "DCPS Strategic Planning Update" is how she intends to sustain her costly proposal to dramatically raise teacher salaries after five years of anticipated philanthropic support has run its course.
The blueprint, circulated in private meetings and obtained by The Washington Post, calls for saving more than $90 million dollars in tuition and transportation costs through 2013 by bringing about 2,000 special education students, now in private schools, back to city schools. The plan does not specify how the children, who received private placement because the city could not meet their physical or emotional needs, will be served.
Rhee also envisions a $28 million savings by relocating the system's central offices on North Capitol Street, possibly to a former school building, and $121 million over five years from the recent round of school closings and consolidations. Overall, the financial plan assumes that during the five-year period in which private foundations carry a significant load, Rhee will extract about $300 million in savings from a school system critics have long described as notorious for squandering money.
And while the document promises a school system dramatically transformed -- with safe, clean buildings, rigorous academic programs and high-performing teachers -- it also shows that Rhee anticipates no more than 500 additional students enrolled in public schools by 2013.
Through her spokesperson, Mafara Hobson, Rhee declined a request for an interview. She said the strategic plan is "an evolving draft document and doesn't reflect final estimates, cost savings or allocations."
The planning document makes broad promises about the school system's future under Rhee. "The experience of DCPS stakeholders will be dramatically different in five years," it says. The paper divides that period into three phases. The first 18-month segment, currently underway, calls for action to "aggressively transition out poor performers at all staff levels."
The shakeup began in March with the dismissal of 98 central office employees and continued this spring with the firing of more than 40 principals and assistant principals. Personnel change continues as an objective in the salary plan Rhee has proposed to the Washington Teachers' Union, in which instructors opting for big raises and bonuses must agree to go on probation for a year.
The second 18-month period, from 2009 to mid-2010, stresses the use of test data to guide classroom instruction. A major theme of third though fifth years is to overhaul special education and completion of a data system intended to give parents real-time information about how their children are faring.
The history of school overhaul efforts in D.C. is replete with five-year plans embraced and abandoned. But Rhee has largely avoided spelling out a long-term vision. Instead, armed with the power vested in her office by the mayoral takeover of the school system, she has plowed ahead with a crash program of reorganization focused on building closures, extra support for substandard schools and replacement of under-performing teachers and principals.
While the city's business and political leadership laud her sense of urgency, they have also been frustrated by what they describe as a lack of detail about her long-term intentions. She has also put off potential allies with what is frequently described as a blunt, dismissive manner.
"She is without a doubt a different personality," said Mike Kimsey, president and executive director of the Kimsey Foundation, a major nonprofit supporter of education overhaul, who added that he does not know Rhee well enough yet but has heard the complaints, almost always leveled privately.
Rhee expects that most of the funding for her teacher pay proposal, which ties big raises and bonuses to improved student achievement, will come from large national foundations heavily involved in overhauling education. In recent private meetings, multiple attendees said she identified four major foundations -- Bill & Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, Dell and Robertson -- as prepared to underwrite the plan, should it win union approval.
Chris Williams, a senior program officer for Gates, said Friday that no agreement has been struck. "We haven't made a commitment on this and we haven't had a discussion about making a commitment," he said.
Officials with Broad and Robertson said they would not comment on prospective grants. Dell did not return a phone message.
Through Hobson, Rhee declined to comment.
Major national donors often look at the level of local contributions before making decisions on grants. On July 17, Rhee went to the World Bank for a meeting of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, an influential network of foundations, charitable trusts and corporations that funds nonprofits and local governments. Its members include organizations that have invested millions in education over the years, including Fannie Mae, the Carter & Melissa Cafritz Foundation, IBM and the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation.
According to three attendees who asked for anonymity because they did not want to damage their relationship with the chancellor, Rhee circulated the planning document and asked local givers for an annual commitment of $7 million to $10 million, over and above the millions donated to the array of community organizations that provide tutoring, after-school programs and other services to the District's public schools.
Moreover, she said she wants private donations directed to the D.C. Public Education Fund, a nonprofit created by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty. Rhee has said she wants to avoid cumbersome procurement processes and other bureaucratic tasks that would come from accepting the money directly from multiple nonprofits.
But some private donors are concerned, the attendees said, that the fund, overseen by a young former Fenty aide and a board with similarly close personal and political ties to the mayor, could lack independence and transparency. Philanthropists also expressed the worry that in an ailing economy with limited corporate dollars, Rhee's insistence on centralizing private largesse in the mayor's fund would limit traditional foundation support for the other older, smaller community organizations.