Rhee Faces Irate Council At Meeting On Budget

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee wants to shift $100 million in school funds.
Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee wants to shift $100 million in school funds. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 31, 2008

Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee was grilled for more than three hours yesterday by D.C. Council members unhappy with the clarity of her budget documents and her regard for their role in overseeing the District's school system.

The chancellor, who reports directly to Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), has not spoken to the council as a group since an April 8 budget hearing, according to the office of council Chairman Vincent C. Gray (D).

Council members were particularly exasperated with Rhee's handling of a proposed $100 million reshuffling of school funds that she unveiled at a Monday news conference.

The huge transfer, representing about 13 percent of the total school budget, is designed to funnel money to schools that successfully appealed spending decisions her office made under a controversial new formula. It is also intended to address imbalances in staffing and funding created by schools that exceeded or failed to meet enrollment projections.

Until the evening before yesterday's hearing, the sole documentation offered by Rhee's office for the "reprogramming" was 38 pages of spreadsheets accompanied by a cursory explanation.

"Why would you submit a document like this, that any reasonable person would know says nothing?" asked Gray, who said that such a gesture compounds the perception that she does not take council oversight seriously.

Rhee said she was trying to "find the right balance" of budget information to provide the council. (Her spokeswoman, Dena Iverson, said after the hearing that the line-by-line information in the spreadsheets was provided earlier this week in response to past requests from the council for more detail on budget matters.)

Rhee added that the fund transfer was also reflected in school-by-school budget summaries made available to the council Wednesday evening.

Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), in one of several tense exchanges with Rhee, complained that she had provided more information to the media about the fund shift than to the council. Rhee said that was not the case.

"I disagree with that," she said.

"You keep disagreeing with that and you won't be around here too long," said Barry, who joined council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5) in filing a "disapproval resolution," a parliamentary maneuver temporarily blocking council action on the reprogramming.

Rhee went to the hearing yesterday with encouraging news for parents who had said last year's $773 million school budget was assembled with little concern for transparency or the timely release of information.

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